Exclusive | Health
For nearly 40 years, the HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County (HEPPAC) has provided services to help the black LGBTQIA community and beyond in reducing the impact of drug-related harm.
HEPPAC is the first black-owned and black-led Harm Reduction center in the United States and the only one in the state of California.
Their integrated Harm Reduction model provides medical services in non-clinical settings for BIPOC patients and communities of color.
Originally developed on the heels of the AIDS epidemic by a diverse group made up of AIDS activists, healthcare providers, and active drug users, HEPPAC provides increased access to Mobile Harm Reduction Services, Medication Assistance Treatment Navigation, HIV/HEP C Education and prevention, Syringe Exchange / Bio Hazzard Containers, and more.
For the last two decades, Oakland native Braunz Courtney has worked at HEPPAC. Today he serves as the center's Executive Director.
“They call me a dinosaur in the harm reduction world now. But I'm a T-Rex out here, so it's all good,” Braunz tells Gaye Magazine.
A former blue-collar worker turned outreach specialist, Braunz moved from San Francisco at 19 and spent his youth within Oakland’s bustling Queer BIPOC scene.
Braunz said at the time many of his black male peers were contracting HIV, which made him interested in wanting to help reduce the spread of HIV and educate his peers and community about HIV prevention methods.
His first introduction into the world of advocacy came from dancing inside a GO-GO box.
“They were like, get on that box, look cute, come up out your shirt, get people to talk to you, and send them over to that table to go get tested for HIV,” Courtney said.
He eventually stumbled upon HEPPAC which would change the course of his life and his community. “HEPPAC's specific role was working with Injection Drug Users (IDUs) .. Term now is People Who Inject Drugs (PWID)” he said.
While at HEPPAC Courtney has helped build and garner funding for nationally and internationally known programs.
“It's come full circle for me. And I love this agency.”
Courtney said his work with HEPPAC doesn't feel like work. “This is like my career. And I love merging multimedia and hip-hop with public health. So that's who I am, and that's what I'm about.”
The center's Black Drug Users Health Hub (B-DUHB) gives black people affected by drug use a chance to come together and discuss the history of drug usage within the black community and unpack their trauma.
“I want this to be a safe space, Afrocentric, that talks openly about what it's like to be black in America and use drugs and all the stigma and all the bullshit historically for decades that we had to face,” Courtney said.
In addition to the B-DUHB the center also offers the East Bay Drug Checking (EBDC) which uses a FTIR machine to show drug users what substances are in their drugs. “This is fairly new across the nation. There's not a lot of organizations nationally who are doing drug checking.” Courtney said.
This year HEPPAC launched their “harm-reduction vending machine”, a vending machine launched in the Oakland-based Highland Hospital's emergency department that offers hygiene kits, condoms, pads, tampons, and even fentanyl test strips - which allow people to test their drugs for fentanyl.
Courtney says the machine has been popular thus far and has helped patients receive items they would have otherwise had to pay for on their own.
While HEPPAC does receive praise for its services, they also face criticism, with some saying their harm reduction model promotes drug usage in their community.
“The reality is people are gonna do what people are gonna do. In every setting I'm in, talking about drugs is usually punitive. The doctor will say, to stop using drugs, but not talking about why are you doing them? What traumas are you dealing with that impact your substance use?” said Courtney.
He continued saying, “Harm reduction is a spectrum from chaotic stage of use to Abstinence and everything in between. ”
Courtney said he wants to help active drug users get to where they can make the healthiest choice around their drug use including administering the drug safer or stop using the drug altogether if that's what they choose.
"There are some people who are like, I need to stop doing drugs. It is dangerous. And help me to get to the point where I can stop, because sometimes stopping to do something ain't gonna happen overnight."
While HEPPAC's services are localized to Alameda County and Contra Costa County, Courtney said he encourages people to look for harm reduction services in their area.
“It's really, really important that you have access to the things that will keep you healthy, alive, and able to thrive.”
For more information on HEPPAC and their services visit HEPPAC.org.