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Harm reduction — enabling people to change their lives

Michelle and Mark Blackmon. Michelle and Mark Blackmon.

Michelle Mathis, chairwoman and interim director of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, admits the organization does enable drug users. 

“We get the accusation of enabling people all the time, but I embrace the moniker of being an enabler,” she said. “I enable people to take a next positive step in their lives. I enable them to have a second, third or 15th chance at life.”

Haywood County is one of the few counties in the state that has Harm Reduction boots on the ground every day and has implemented a number of harm reduction programs in the last eight years, but there are still people in the community who believe HRC is doing more harm than good. 

Michelle and Mark Blackmon disagree. If it wasn’t for the couple’s relationship with Jesse-Lee Dunlap and the HRC, they say they’d still be out on the streets doing drugs. 

“A couple of years ago I almost OD’d and I went to the hospital. Jesse-Lee came and brought me information and supplies and said I could go to rehab if I wanted it,” Michelle said. “It’s hard to trust anyone new but Jesse-Lee knows how to talk to us. That’s the one person that helped us other than Officer Banks. They got on us so much we were done fighting.”

Mark said he and Officer Keith Banks with the Waynesville Police Department had a “love/hate” relationship — they didn’t really like each other but the one thing they had was respect for one another, which is why they’ve been able to communicate and work together now that Mark is working on his recovery. 

“I wanted to get away from the people I was around and it got to the point where Banks told me he’d buy me a ticket to leave,” Mark joked. “I give him all the praise and glory for what he’s done.”

With tough love and support from law enforcement and HRC, the Blackmons now have a roof over their heads, they’re both in recovery, Michelle has reconnected with her children, Mark is giving back to the community and Michelle just got a new job working for the Harm Reduction Coalition in Haywood County. She’s currently in Durham for training. 

As regulars in Frog Level, Mark and Michelle are well known to local law enforcement agencies and have been frequently in and out of the Haywood County Detention Center. Both of them have criminal charges pending, but they’re also trying to get their lives together again once and for all. 

They’ve struggled with drugs most of their lives. Michelle said she’s been clean for four months — it’s not the first time she’s gotten clean, but she hopes it’s the last time. 

“I’ve gotten clean several times over the last 20 years, but I knew this time was different,” she said. “I quit cold turkey. I knew I could have gotten suboxone but I knew I would just shoot it up, so I went cold turkey.”

Mark grew up in and out of foster homes and then once he was 18, he dealt drugs and was in and out of prison for many years. Selling drugs led to his own addiction. He’s still working on recovery even through a recent relapse. 

“But this is the first time I’ve dropped everything and been clean,” he said. 

“We got together on the streets, but now we’re having to learn each other all over again,” Michelle said. “But being with him made me want to get clean — I wanted my relationship more.”

“If someone can survive all that, you can survive anything,” Mark added. 

Mark and Michelle are currently living at Michelle’s mother’s home in Haywood County, and Michelle has reconnected with her three children — who are 17, 19 and 24 — and her first grandchild. 

“I’ve been in and out of their lives for a long time. My mom has had them for 13 years. My youngest was 3 years old when mom got them,” Michelle recalled. 

Since establishing a relationship with HRC, Michelle was encouraged to get tested for infections since she has injected drugs and shared needles in the past. She found out she has Hepatitis C and will begin a treatment soon. 

“I never realized anything about it until I received the education through the Harm Reduction coalition. Jesse-Lee helped me with that and now I can get treatment,” she said. 

Mark also met Dunlap through their work in the community. He said he helped pick up needles on several occasions and would even go visit some of the homeless encampments around town to drop off essentials because it wasn’t a safe place for Dunlap to go. To the best of their knowledge, there are at least nine encampments in the Waynesville area. 

As a harm reduction worker, those are the types of things Michelle will be doing soon after her training in Durham. It will be a bit surreal to be on the other side of the issues now and being the one trying to help others, but it will also give her one more reason to stay sober.

“It’s something I've always wanted to do — to help people — and I’m at a point where I’m clean and I can do it now,” she said. “I have a lot of trust from the unhoused and addicts already, so I’m hoping that helps me in this new position.”

Mark hopes to help Michelle help others any way he can. Already he’s been working with Waynesville First United Methodist Church with fundraising to help the unhoused population. He also helps cook meals for people in Frog Level and gives free haircuts to those who need one. 

“My past is pretty dirty, but people have always looked up to me as a leader for some reason,” he said. “They’ve always come to us because they trust us. We can talk to them and we know where the camps are. We still go down there (Frog Level) and check on them. We give out clothes, deodorant, clothes, food, blankets. They go through a lot of those because they get dirty or stolen.”

As they are embarking on a new kind of life, the Blackmons also are setting goals for their future since Michelle now has a full-time job with benefits. 

“Our first goal is to get transportation and a bank account. Then we want to buy a piece of land — somewhere that homeless can have a place to go and set up their tents or whatever and feel safe. But there will be rules and regulations,” Mark said. 

“I have a lot of family I want to help straighten up. It’s hard to see,” Michelle said. “And we want to find our own place. My parents need to have some peace and quiet and right now there’s eight of us in the house. I don’t know how they do it.”

Mark said there is so much misunderstanding in the community about substance use disorder and the unhoused. He wishes people would take more time to talk to them and understand what they've been through in their lives. 

“Don’t judge the homeless people by their cover. Get to know people. Even if they are addicts, they are people and are nice. Many of them want help and don’t know how to get it,” he said. 

In next week’s issue, The Smoky Mountain News will go more in depth about the history of harm reduction and its impact in the U.S.

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