Neighbours podcast: Peter Williams on how “connection, community and belonging” are at the core of harm reduction

Peter Williams has a long history doing harm reduction work, though he didn’t necessarily realize it as such at the time, but he notices now looking back on it. “What I know now looking back is that I was doing harm reduction work but that wasn’t necessarily the framework for it,” he says during our conversation for the Neighbours podcast.

He started out working with an HIV/AIDS hospice in Toronto during the 1980s, the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and continuing that work as he worked for a number of agencies and then when he came to Peterborough to work at the Peterborough AIDS Resource Network (PARN) in 2010  when he was an HIV/AIDS education and harm reduction works coordinator.

Right now, Peter is a project lead for the Peterborough Drug Strategy. He coordinates the Housing Unit Takeover project and supports the Mobile Supportive Overdose Resource Team.

Before that Peter was the community development and engagement coordinator for the Peterborough Police, and in this role also became the chair of the Peterborough Drug Strategy, which is a collective of community partners focused on addressing the drug crisis. In this position he was one of the early leaders in the push to submit a Consumption and Treatment Site application for Peterborough. 

In our conversation, Peter talks about this history and how community needs, belonging and connection are at the heart of it all.

The Neighbours Podcast is an audio series that introduces you to community members working on the frontline of the opioid crisis here in Peterborough.

Episode transcript

Ayesha  00:07

Hi, you’re listening to the Neighbors podcast from Peterborough Currents. I’m Ayesha Barmania. In Season One, we’re talking to people on the frontline of the opioid crisis here in Peterborough. And today, I’m introducing you to one of the people working behind the scenes making harm reduction projects happen locally. And that’s a man named Peter Williams. Right now Peter is the project lead for the Peterborough drug strategy. He coordinates projects like the Mobile Supportive Overdose Resource Team, which was recently started to reach out and support folks who have experienced an overdose and who chose not to go to the hospital, as well as a few other projects. Before that, he was chair of the Peterborough drug strategy, overseeing the meeting of the collective and the high-level coordination of resources and the group’s priorities. Peter has been involved in harm reduction work locally since he moved to Peterborough to take a position with PARN, doing education work. After that, he continued this work as the community engagement liaison for Peterborough police. He has a storied work in personal history in this field, and since he’s been involved in a number of really important local developments on the opioid crisis, I wanted to ask him about how he thinks about this work. And when we spoke, he actually traced his roots back even further back to the 90s when he was working at an HIV/AIDS hospice.

Peter Williams  01:19

What I know now looking back is that I was doing harm reduction work, but that wasn’t necessarily the framework for it. So harm reduction now has come to me in many cases very specific to substance use. Broadly, harm reduction work is anything in which you can help reduce the harms that might be associated with activities. And in the early days of HIV/AIDS, that was all about safer sex practices.

Ayesha  01:43

Harm reduction is a goal to reduce harms, and it’s also a term for a wide range of projects and initiatives. And in the context of a public health crisis like HIV/AIDS, it can mean all sorts of things, including reducing rates of transmission so that fewer people get the virus. It also includes work like combating stigma and building community, which has been an incredibly important part of the response to HIV/AIDS. In 1981, when the virus was first identified in the mainstream, it was called ‘a gay related immune deficiency’, because it was spreading primarily among gay men. And for a long time, there has been and continues to be misunderstanding and fear about interacting with HIV positive people. And through the 80s and 90s, there was also a devastating lack of action by those in political power to act and save lives. Maybe you can start to see here the connections I’m making between the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the modern day epidemic of opioid related deaths, a disease impacting marginalized members of society, a lack of swift political action, resulting in deaths, and a pervasive stigma among the misinformed public. This is the setting that Peter Williams got his foot in the door doing harm reduction work, and I found it a really interesting component of what shapes his work today. As you’re about to hear in our conversation, Peter’s perspective is to cast as wide a net as possible, while also working to serve specific community needs. And this is a philosophy that goes back to his HIV/AIDS work.

Peter Williams  03:02

HIV AIDS in the early days was very much a gay man’s disease. But the response to it was very much LGBTQ, which I think we need to remember. But, you know, I can think back over different points in the evolution of the response to HIV/AIDS were suddenly it was like, ‘Okay, these responses seem a little too focused on gay white men.’ And so, where is the response from the black indigenous people of color communities, because we need something that looks maybe a little different for our responses. And then women were like, ‘We need something that’s maybe a little more specific for responses to us’. And so it’s challenging to think about how you create community and inclusivity, so that they encompass as many people as possible, but also have tweaks to them that speak to people in a really specific way. Because that’s what they need to be. That’s what they need to hear. And that’s what they need in order to feel seen for the intervention whatever it is to be effective. And I think that’s part of what has always interested me and what’s driven the work that I do is that juggling act. How do you how do you do that? So for pretty much any project I’ve ever been involved in, whether it’s, you know, working HIV/AIDS, whether it’s trying to figure out neighborhood crime, whether it’s about trying to resolve something through City Hall, whatever it is, one of the core, basic solutions that is at the heart of everything is always connection and community and belonging. So I don’t care what your problem is, at some point, that’s going to be one of the key factors to your solution. That is a core truth and it’s been true for forever. And yet we still struggle to figure out how to make it happen. So, we just have to keep repackaging, reframing, renewing that core message in ways so that people will hear it and find ways to respond and engage.

Ayesha  05:25

Mm hmm. Yeah. And you were Chair of the Peterborough drug strategy for a number of years. I wondered if you could speak to how that philosophy fit into the work you’re doing there, in that role, actually, because you’re still there.

Peter Williams  05:37

Yes, I’ve shifted I’m with the drug strategy shifted roles. I know a project lead with the drug strategy. My role before was started out as a representative of PARN at that table. PARN is one of the pillar members, and Peterborough Police are another pillar member. And so when I was chair, I was actually working as the community development and engagement coordinator with the Peterborough Police. Public health and forecast are the other two pillars. So I think the way that that fits in terms of the drug strategy philosophy is that we recognize that people, human beings are complex and face complex challenges. And that the drug strategies mission is to try to minimize the harms that would be associated with substance use at both the individual and community level, and you can’t solve complex problems with a single approach. So that’s why it’s a four pillar structure is kind of that wraparound approach. How do we recognize all the different parts of an issue and then figure out how to best address them? The way the drug strategy is structured is that each of the pillar partners has designated representatives that participate in the regular meetings and the development of the drugs strategy. And so I was at that table on behalf of PARN for I guess it was about five years. And so through that opportunity got to know our police partners a little better, and some of the work that they were doing. Again, you can I think most of your listeners can easily imagine that as a teenager in the 70s, and young man in the early 80s, as a gay man, like that wasn’t that didn’t necessarily intersect well with the idea of policing. So the fact that I I have at this point in my life ended up working with police is quite amazing, and was a, it continues to be one of the highlights of my experiences. But getting to know the police partners in some of the work that they were trying to do in terms of improved community partnerships, community building, they created a brand new civilian position. That is the community development engagement coordinator. And it really intrigued me like, again, it wasn’t something that I would have expected police to necessarily do. And one of the key components to that role is police wanted somebody who would be able to say, you know, ‘I think you’re getting it wrong right now. Like, I really need you to hear a community perspective and think about this from a different angle. And look, can we problem solve and go forward from there?’ And so, again, I think I just had a certain skill set that facilitated my ability to be able to do that. And I think that’s true for Emily Jones, who holds that position currently.

Ayesha  08:55

Yeah, absolutely. And do you mean like in in terms of like planning responses or projects in terms of law enforcement having that kind of community perspective?

Peter Williams  09:04

Yes. So again, I think often when we think about assets based community development, folks can look into a situation and think, ‘Oh, you know, we think that, I don’t know, this issue must be the priority for the community’. And when you talk to them, it turns out that actually their biggest concern is people speeding through the neighborhood, and their kids don’t feel safe playing on the street. It could also be about I remember the first Black Lives Matter rally that took place here in Peterborough and you know, police being like, ‘okay, we see how some communities are, how this plays out in some communities, but we want to try and get this right from the beginning’. My role was to see how I could help connect them to the community stakeholders that could help them navigate that and find a way for that to happen that police were seen to be doing, taking a community safety perspective, but also appreciating the community needs at that time and supporting that.

Ayesha  10:20

Yeah, more of the building bridges, building connections, helping to make those nexuses of people who might need support as well as community. To talk about more of the project work that you’re involved with, as well, I know you kind of I think you were still with the police when you were working on stuff like the M sort project and the CTS application. I wondered if you just wanted to talk a bit about those projects.

Peter Williams  10:45

You brought up CTS. So we’ll start with that. So that’s the Consumption and Treatment Services sites, that would previously been known as safer injection sites or safe consumption sites. So that was something where it was really more through my role. Well, it was where my two roles collided. As being Chair of the Drug Strategy and the Community Development Engagement Work coordinator for Peterborough Police, I was hearing from lots of different partners about how strongly they felt about a CTS and wanting to move forward conversations and recognizing that it was way bigger than either the drug strategy. Certainly, you know, it’s relevant to police and police play a supportive role, but this is a health issue. So you’re looking for different leadership around that. And so my involvement in terms of the early days of the CTS conversations was really trying to make sure that as many of the partners as were needed, got to the table, and then it took on its own life. So I have very little to do with that at this point. And as Currents has covered, you know, that there’s currently an application in with the provincial government that was really led by forecast PARN and the 360 nurse practitioner led clinic with lots of partners involved in supporting, including public health. The MSORT project, this was there was funding, it still is funding available through Health Canada, their substance use and addictions program. And this was a great opportunity, the deputy chief Tim Farquharson came to me and said, ‘You know, this funding is available, we can apply for funding’. How can we what can we do to mobilize a community project that would help us address overdose and the opiate crisis slash drug poisoning crisis? And he had this idea of wanting to figure out how to also engage peers, people with lived experience more in the work. We again, we just had several community forums invited people’s ideas about what we could design and apply for. And I kind of joke that this is a great example of where part of my job was. I’m using air quotes, since people can’t see me on the radio. ‘defund police’, that this was a project that really, police were in a position to apply for the funding and had the the administrative capacity to manage the funding and take care of the accounting and all of all of the things that often drown small not for profits. But every cent of that almost $3 million, over two and a half years, going out to the community. So there’s no money being spent on anything to do with policing. It’s all the community based paramedic, it’s complex case managers and addictions. And its peer support outreach workers. And a partnership between forecast PARN paramedics and police.

Ayesha  14:22

To follow up on that point about the the idea of defunding the police and how it fits into the the MSORT project because I think it’s really interesting, like what do you think is the role for for police in kind of backing away from from potentially the frontline response to the overdose crisis?

Peter Williams  14:43

I think that it’s definitely about right sizing the police frontline response. And, if you’re talking about specifically when an overdose occurs, the unfortunate thing is that this crisis is complex. And as I said earlier, I always try to include overdose opiate drug poisoning problem. And so part of the problem is about drug poisoning. That absolutely includes a criminal enforcement policing lens to it, in terms of trying to figure out how to solve that problem. It’s about how people are driving an illicit drug market. And so there’s lots of moving parts to that. And one of them includes an appropriate police response. And so it’s trying to figure out how to do that in a way that doesn’t further marginalize the folks who are overdosing. And the folks that need support, so I don’t know if that is… Does that kind of answer the question?

Ayesha  15:55

Yeah, I think so. So less of the defunding police, but just figuring out the right way for them to be involved at the right. time and place in size and scale.

Peter Williams  16:06

Yes. And I think, again, you know, for folks who were around in the 80s and 90s, when it was about defunding institutionalized mental health, which is exactly how we’re in the current situation, or one of the main reasons we’re in the current situation we’re in is that people called for a dismantling or defunding of a particular framework, and the government was like, ‘Awesome, we can take money away from that.’ And so they did. They didn’t reinvest it anywhere. So I think that if you take the defunding label too literally, I think it’s really dangerous. I think that we have to focus on where are the deficits been, for far too long. And if we fund mental health, mental wellness, social services, address poverty, get a guaranteed basic income, support, you know, support families and parents and kids. And really invest in that the way that it should be. We won’t need to defund police because those budgets would automatically be reduced because the calls for service will… they just won’t exist. Right? And I don’t I don’t know, I personally do not know a single police officer that would not love to see that happen.

Ayesha  17:37

Right? Do you see the work that you’re doing, as fitting into the those kinds of like anti-poverty wraparound services that you described? as like, if we invest in these other spheres? We’ll need the police less?

Peter Williams  17:52

Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s been a theme through all of the various jobs that I’ve had through my career. But again, specifically in that role working with police, that the focus there very much is crime prevention through social development. So anti-poverty work is community safety and well being work, which is police work.

Ayesha  18:18

Which is community health, which is public health, which is civic engagement, which is everything. Yeah. It’s it’s fascinating stuff. And I also wanted to turn next to another project. So after your work with the police, and as chair of PDS, you are now the project lead for two different projects. So MSORT And the second one is the… Oh, man, I don’t have it written in my notes, housing…

Peter Williams  18:47

Housing Unit Takeovers.

Ayesha  18:49

Do you want to talk a bit about that second project?

Peter Williams  18:51

Sure. And again, just so folks understand, I’m a project lead with the Peterborough Drug Strategy; within that portfolio. I’m attached to two projects. One is the MSORT. So the Mobile Support Overdose Resource Team. And I’m, I play a small role in that project now, just helping support knowledge transfer and training and education components. The other role I have is coordinating the housing unit takeover project. So again, this is where there was specific funding available through police through what they call a proceeds of crime grant. And when I went to community partners, and it happened to be at a drug strategy meeting, to say, ‘So here’s this call for funding. What would you like? What What do you think we can do that’s like that crime prevention through social development lens? Because I don’t have any ideas.’ and they were like, well, the two of the partners who spoke up first were Forecast and CMHA. So, addiction services and mental health services, both of whom who provide supportive housing. And what they started to describe to me was this phenomenon called HUTs or housing unit takeovers, where tenants have their unit taken over through coercion and manipulation. And while HUTs can look like all sorts of things, so at one end of the spectrum, it might look like the the son or daughter or brother or whoever that’s moved back in with parents, or an older parent, they’re usually on their own, and start to take over their finances and start to take over their living arrangements. And slowly that person’s life is made smaller and smaller, while this other person takes over. But that continuum goes all the way up to very intentional business-based gang involvement. And gangs will come in and they will make connections with folks by leveraging their vulnerabilities whether that’s an addiction, mental health issue, whether it’s a cognitive impairment, whether it’s just the the primary factor is isolation, social isolation, disconnection. So again, you’ll remember I said, no matter what the problem is often connection, belonging, building community as part of the solution. So those vulnerabilities are leveraged, and the gang members will move in. And they will use the tenant like as a front or a beard, to cover their operations of drug trafficking, gun trafficking, human trafficking. And and, you know, what has happened in the past, is that often people don’t see past the beard. And so it’s the already more marginalized tenant who ends up being evicted because of this activity. And so part of this project is about building awareness so that we can see past that and recognize what’s happening behind the scenes, so that we can keep the tenant safe, take a trauma informed approach to supporting them, and intervening to address the unit takeover that’s happening.

Ayesha  22:27

Yeah, and I know, it’s fairly early on in the project. And I think it’s gonna run for three years. Is that right?

Peter Williams  22:34

Yeah, we’re funded to March 31 2023.

Ayesha  22:37

What what extent do we understand that this is happening already, like, do we have numbers yet, or as part of the project to…

Peter Williams  22:42

Part of the project is to get a better sense of how pervasive this is, because the concept of unit takeovers in that vocabulary is fairly new. So it’s not necessarily a tick box when people are tracking data. I will say that a few times now, when I’ve talked to folks, they have estimated that anywhere between 25-30% of their housing stock is on a continuum of housing unit takeovers. So that makes it pretty pervasive. And it’s, and again, back to the issue of addressing poverty. You know, what the community sees is the superficial activity, and they will blame it or attach it to the folks in the social or supportive housing and say, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s it’s those people with poverty issues of those people with addiction issues like that. They’re the problem.’ No, gangs are the problem. And we need to right size that because it’s undermining our efforts to end homelessness.

Ayesha  23:49

Right, that makes sense. And I guess to ask you a bit more of like a personal question about this work. So you went from the chair role at PDS and have now become a project lead, so I guess I wanted to know a bit more about why you made that decision. Like why why do you feel like you need to be in this position at this moment?

Peter Williams  24:10

Um, I think there’s two parts to my answer. In terms of why I, I thought I needed to make the change. That was very much about I think everyone has a shelf life. Everyone has a best before date, to their work, or to the way they’re doing the work. And that, at least for me, I know that I can. It’s easy to get stale, if you’re not finding new ways to think about and approach things. And I, I think the work that’s done with the Peterborough police, and that role of community developer engagement coordinator is really important. And, as I said, requires you to be able to challenge, the way things are done all the time, so you’re always trying to say ‘is this really the best way we’re supposed to do this?’ And, and just, and that’s exhausting. And so quite frankly, I was exhausted. And I thought, ‘okay, I still want to do this work, I need a different way to do it’. And what I have always appreciated about the collaborative nature of Peterborough and the organizations that I’ve worked with, is, I always describe it as it’s about tending to the ecosystem of Peterborough from a social services and health lens. And so, to me, it doesn’t matter whether I was a chair or an executive director or a frontline worker, it’s all about figuring out ways to tend to the ecosystem of Peterborough. And so I think I can do that just as effectively, or in a different way, but, but effectively from where I’m working from now, then where I was when I was with the police. And, again, I have to say, I’m thrilled that Emily Jones is in the role currently there and is a value added to the community because she was somebody that’s new. So I kind of feel like, you know, we did a bit of a mix around, but we also got this great added asset to the community. And so I think it was a great decision, even though I didn’t know how it was going to play out.

Ayesha  26:32

What do you think is important for folks to know or understand about, you know, particularly the overt opioid crisis or overdoses in general? And you talked about drug poisoning as well. What do you think is important for the community to understand?

Peter Williams  26:46

Wow, I think it’s important that it’s understood as a complex health issue. That it can have, it can and does affect everyone in all sorts of people that there’s not one type of person that is susceptible to substance. substance use disorder or addictions. Yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s hard I, you should because I think I can’t, I suppose I should have I suppose if I was asked, I could prepare a kind of a soapbox. Here. Here are the four points I think every person needs to know. But I mean, in the context of our conversation, I think it’s another one of those. ‘How do we meet people where they’re at?’ Like, I think the most important thing for people is to be having conversations, to be engaged in actively in dialogue about how this is affecting our community, and how people can make a difference. I think it’s assumptions about who believes what or who holds what position is part of where we face the challenges. So I think the most important thing is ‘how do we invite everyone into this conversation because it’s everyone’s problem’.

Ayesha  28:02

Thanks so much for your time today, and I really appreciate your openness and you sharing your story with us.

Peter Williams  28:07

No problem. Thank you for having me.

Ayesha  28:14

Thanks for listening to today’s episode. It was produced and hosted by me, Ayesha Barmania. The guest was Peter Williams Project Lead for the Peterborough drug strategy. You can find out more about that group at Music In this episode comes courtesy of Hurricane Charley, check out their music on Bandcamp. This podcast is a Peterborough Currents project, we’re a reader and listener supported news outlet for the Peterborough area. If you like the work that we’re doing, I hope you’ll consider supporting us with a financial contribution. We really appreciate it. Thanks so much for listening and bye for now.


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