Our August Staff Spotlight, Verna Johnson treats her work as a calling. After being with St. Francis House for 15 years as a part-time member of our Community Engagement and Safety (CES) team, Verna joined the behavioral health team in May of 2021 as one of our first Harm Reduction Specialists. An important part of her position is outreach. Verna connects with people in the community who are experiencing addiction, makes them aware of the resources available at St. Francis House, and helps ensure they manage risks and stay safe. With many people she meets, Verna makes a long-lasting impression, connecting with guests on a personal level with her lived experience and boundless compassion.
Could you explain what you do as a harm reduction specialist and what is so important about harm reduction?
When working part-time on the CES team, I occasionally took on the role of taking people to detox. I would tend to them when they were sedated, I would monitor them. I did this the whole time I was working here but it wasn’t until last year that they formally announced the Harm Reduction position.
I was formerly a case manager, so I’m full of resources. I can connect during engagement, do outreach, and give our guests resources. I invite them back to St. Francis House so they can start the process of getting their documentation. Also, if someone needs a detox I call around and we try our best to find one.
They have a name for me. Captain Save. I can save a person because I try. There’s so much I love about this job but the saddest part of it is I know I can’t save everyone. If I get 20 of them and I save 1 out of 20 I feel like my work is not in vain. I have this unorthodox way of relating to them. They all call me auntie, mama, and a lot of them I don’t know their names, but all of them are my darlings. I’ll be driving down Blue Hill Ave in Dorchester and I’ll be at a light and all of a sudden, I’ll hear “Darling!”
It’s just the job of meeting, engaging, and listening. It’s amazing to me.
But I have no problem, doing outreach, I’ll say, “Are you ready to go home? Come on, I’ll take you home.” It’s just caring, and they are so appreciative.
I don’t fear one person. They show me respect, and they know if they don’t, somebody around them will. People say, “how do you go down there to Mass and Cass?” I have no problem. Even people in a sedated state when they look up and see me, speak, and smile. There’s just so much I love about what I do. And I love St. Francis House.
What part of you do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy doing engagement and spreading the word about St. Francis House. I tell people to come here and when they’re ready, they come. There’s also the trust that I have gained throughout the population that we work with. It’s a unique population that we’re dealing with. With this trust, I met a guy that used to come to St. Francis House on Mass and Cass and I told him “You know where I’m at when you need me.” W I told him, “You need to come home, and this isn’t your home. St. Francis House is your home.” One day he came to me pouring down sweat. He was standing outside. He took something and he didn’t know what it was but it made him feel some kind of way. He ran all the way from 112 to here just because he trusted me enough when I told him I knew how to help him if he needed me.
I have a relationship with guys that some outreach workers can’t even get close to and I appreciate and love the fact that I’m doing some good, for what it’s worth. It’s not all hands-on work that helps a person. Sometimes it’s just listening, and I listen a lot. And I can talk to them like—I’m not really a book scholar, I did two years of human services courses as Bunker Hill. I know, for me when I was there, if you haven’t been through it, there’s not much more you can tell me about what I’m in or how I feel.
So having that lived experience is very important.
Book knowledge might get you a job, but lived experience gains you respect, and trust, because they know you know what you’re talking about. You’ve been through this. You’ve been through this struggle, and you made it out.
What does “harm reduction” mean to you?
With harm reduction I’m able to play a part in breaking the stigma around drug use and the language they use such as “drug addict” and “junkie.” I also provide safety by educating clients about the harm, the risk, and how to maximize safety of usage. We used to confiscate the drugs. Now I’ve learned the harm of confiscating their drugs because we don’t know what they had to do to get it. Confiscation actually puts them in a deeper risk of overdose or bodily harm.
Walking down Mass and Cass any time before I became a harm reduction specialist I would have thought very differently. I would have been on that other side, but now I have empathy. They have doctors, lawyers, and teachers out there. I met a judge, a Circuit Court Judge. Addiction doesn’t discriminate.
Do you see addiction more like a disease now?
I’ve learned that it is not a choice, it is an actual disease. You can’t force someone into recovery when they are not ready. They have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired and you have to be there at that moment to help them.
Is there anything you wish people knew about your role or your department?
I take my role very, very seriously. I treat it as a life and death matter, and I am dedicated to the cause.
My department is one of the most pleasant work atmospheres that I have encountered. My co-workers are wonderful. I know they love me but I wonder if sometimes they think I’m too nosey. Not that I’m trying to be nosey! I guess I’m just so full of resources and I try to help everyone out. You could say I’m a busy body. I’m taking care of one client because one of my co-workers is out on maternity leave so now he’s my client. I take him to his appointments, I take him to view housing, and take him to this and that. When other case managers have issues with their clients, they consult me. I like to help, and I love my department. I’m full of resources that I’m not able to use doing harm reduction.
My position is one that I would love to see grow more than just us two. I can’t tell you how honored and how proud I am to be the flagship for harm reduction. It’s a life dream. I didn’t even know that this was my passion or my dream, but St. Francis House has fulfilled that for me.
They know already because they say “what are you going to do when you retire” and I say “keep looking around the corner, I’ll be there.” I still want to help.