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County holds listening session as part of effort to fight public health crisis

Wednesday, August 3, 2022 by Seth Smalley

Travis County Health and Human Services updated the Commissioners Court last week on the county’s May declaration of a public health crisis due to a sharp increase in drug overdose and opioid addiction rates.

The declaration included eight directives from the Commissioners Court to help ameliorate the crisis. Part of that work included HHS and commissioners meeting monthly with advocates, harm reductionists and those directly impacted by the crisis.

Much of the update consisted of a recap of a July 18 community listening session hosted by Travis Watson, a community liaison, advocate and former inmate. He called the first listening session “a true collaboration between HHS, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, drug user union working group 512 and a couple of others and Recovery ATX.” (Drug users around the country are forming unions to protect their rights, fight stigma, and support one another, whether they are in recovery, still using, or somewhere in between.)

“Through these sessions we intend to gather feedback from those most impacted by the overdose crisis,” said Courtney Lucas, a senior planner with HHS. “And from that input, we plan to put together a platform of recommendations for the court to consider for implementation.”

Over 130 people attended the session, according to Lucas, more than 40 of whom were in-person attendees.

“I think that what was overarching from this meeting is that we need to let those with lived experiences be seen, heard and understood,” Watson told the commissioners. “Local governance has always put the opinions of individuals and organizations without experience first.”

Watson said a chief sentiment from the community during the session was that funding should go to new organizations and entities.

“Communities in Travis County are tired of Integral Care and the rest,” he said, going on to say community members have suggested auditing organizations that “have already gotten funding and have done nothing.” (That same day, commissioners voted to approve an audit on Central Health.)

“I have appreciation for the work that the community is doing on this,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. “We struggle with having a Legislature that views these issues very differently and punishes local governments when they try to do things that they believe are beneficial for the community.”

“I was encouraged by the steps Travis County is taking in partnership with the Harm Reduction Coalition and the union and others to listen to people with lived experience,” Commissioner Ann Howard said.

Lucas said HHS is continuing to work with Communities for Recovery, a local nonprofit that provides recovery coaching and support, to develop a “scope of services” for its $350,000 grant to provide naloxone and harm reduction services to Travis County.

As part of the May directive, HHS will update the court during the last voting session each month for the next five months.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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