Denise Elerick stood in the benchlands, a former home for many houseless individuals. A candle’s flame illuminated the memorial of someone from the benchlands who had recently overdosed.

“Someone in the group was suffering in their grief. They wanted Narcan. They didn’t know that the county was distributing Narcan,” Elerick said.

Narcan, a brand of naloxone, is an opiate antidote used to reverse the effects of an overdose. There are a lot of policies, like this, in place that the community does not know about, she said. This experience in tandem with Santa Cruz County’s high overdose rate — more than triple the state average — was one of the reasons Elerick wanted to help build the Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County (HRCSCC).

The newly formed coalition advocates for policies and services that will not only help people from the substance-using community, but educate the public about harm reduction. County representatives, health service providers and coalition members met outside of the Santa Cruz County Courthouse on April 5 to announce the HRCSCC’s goals to the public.

Elerick described harm reduction as communal efforts toward safer drug use, unlike other approaches that focus on quitting use completely.

“A part of harm reduction is empowering someone to take control of their own health,” Elerick said, “to celebrate and appreciate them for making an excellent health decision, not only for themselves, but for the whole community.”

Although the coalition won’t directly provide treatment and services, members plan to lobby for funding, partner with law enforcement, train park staff and connect people to resources.

Santa Cruz County public health officer Dr. Arnold Leff emphasized the need for public education about substance dependency to reduce communitywide misconceptions.

“The fact is most people who are in the throes of substance use disorder will recover eventually,” Leff said, “and those folks should be prevented from significant harm and also prevented from getting infections that can be spread to the greater community.”

The HRCSCC is a byproduct of a listening session hosted by the national Harm Reduction Coalition on March 19 in the Santa Cruz Public Library. About 70 county residents, California Department of Public Health members and other representatives of various services attended the session to discuss substance use in the county and a harm reduction approach.

Taeko Frost, western regional director of the national Harm Reduction Coalition, helped facilitate the meeting during which attendees expressed concerns for the lack of both resources and community support. Members of the national Harm Reduction Coalition supported Santa Cruz County residents in identifying these local issues and forming their own local coalition to combat them.

There are many health care roadblocks for those using substances, Frost said. First, people need to find an available service provider to access programs like drug treatment. This can be especially challenging for houseless and undocumented individuals because of potential difficulties getting insurance or identification, which can prevent them from getting treatment.

Even after these hurdles, Frost said, there are still psychological barriers.

“There’s a lot of stigma and shame around drug use and people being treated poorly or mistrusted,” Frost said. “Even if people have all of the right things like the doctors, the access, the travel, the transport and the stability in their lives to access those services, they may not feel like they actually can because of bad experiences they’ve had in the past.”

The stigma around substance use is what pushes the substance-using community out of crucial conversations and ultimately inhibits harm reduction, co-founder Denise Elerick said. She said the HRCSCC aims to see those faces in the coalition.

The HRCSCC’s next meeting is on April 19 at Capitola City Hall at 7 p.m.