The Bike-Based, Anarchist Public Health Project That’s Keeping People Alive On Olympia's Streets
“A volunteer-run, bicycle-based, 365-night-a-year street outreach program with basic emergency supplies and syringe exchange and naloxone distribution…. In Olympia, Washington.” That’s how volunteer Cassie Burke describes the Emma Goldman Youth and Homeless Outreach Project, or EGYHOP.
It’s been going for about two decades on the streets of downtown Olympia. As a practical matter, on one early autumn night, that translated into two young women on rickety mountain bikes, towing large black bins lashed together with more or less whatever is available.
“It’s just this random jumble of like, what can we bungee to this thing today? Did the bungee break? Do we have bike inner tube? Do we have rope? Do we have anything?” Cassie says.
But the contents of those bins are carefully thought out: free clothes (especially socks), tarps and sleeping bags in colder weather, donated food and drinks, and, crucially, clean supplies for injection drug users.
Krista Kohler, who has been riding with Cassie for seven years, assembles the drug supplies into kits for people who use.
“In this bag I’m putting together a bag of clean rigs, and then all the supplies that we have access to to pass out to people, and that consists of alcohol wipes, which is really important for keeping the skin clean before injecting. We pass out sterile water, we have clean cottons individually bagged up, and a little cooker container that’s all clean. And then ties for people,” she explains, before handing it off to a participant.
Long-Hair-David And The Origins Of EGYHOP
The Emma Goldman Youth and Outreach Project gets its name from one of the most prolific radical anarchists of the 20th century. Emma Goldman believed strongly in, as Cassie called it, self determination, meaning that every human being deserved the right to make their own decisions about how to live their lives.
In the early 1990s, Goldman’s legacy inspired a guy who goes by the name Long-Hair David to take action.
“I’m Long Hair David, and I’m a street outreach volunteer in Olympia Washington for the injecting drug community, and it’s our social responsibility to try to protect ourselves from spread of HIV and AIDS,” David said in a video interview in 1993.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Long Hair David was tired of watching the disease devastate his community. This was a time before antiretroviral cocktails, when many were dying.
David and some of his friends began riding their bikes around the city asking people, particularly IV drug users, how they could help.
This was also around the same time that Washington State was pioneering harm reduction services, including the first-ever government sanctioned needle exchange in Tacoma. Harm reduction refers to the basic idea that addiction is complex, and people who are using drugs still deserve access to life-saving measures like clean supplies and overdose reversal drugs like naloxone. That’s why EGYHOP is not so much in the business of evangelising sobriety, as it is trying to give people supplies that will help keep them safe right now, which also includes warm clothes and clean socks.
“And so the next time I see you,” Long Hair David continues in the video, “we talk about recovery and you tell me that you never share your syringe anymore, that’s excellent! Keep that up! And I’ll be here for you, you come on and see me and I’ll have clean rigs for you and condoms and we’ll see about getting you to see a doctor and maybe one of these days we’ll sit down and talk about you getting clean.”
‘I See A Really Big Hole In Our World’
Twenty-five years later, volunteers like Cassie and Krista help keep the program running. They carry a large, red sharps container to collect used needles, and dole out donated pastries to a group on the sidewalk near the bus depot and the interfaith community center.
Organizations like EGYHOP are sometimes criticized for encouraging drug use, or making it easier for people to persist in self-destructive lifestyles.
“I don’t necessarily buy into the idea of ‘enabling,’” Cassie says. “I think the folks that are already using drugs, already living on the street, already submerged in that kind of lifestyle, that’s just where they’re at. … I don’t think that it’s anybody’s place to feel like as a culture we can give people permission to live their lives where they’re at. And I just think that kind of gatekeeping is really disingenuous to the kind of world I want to be in.”
“I just, I see a really big hole in our world, in our town, in our world where it’s just like, people aren’t being taken care of, their humanity isn’t being recognized, and it just feels really important to be to be a part of something that fills that gap.”