Shilo Jama has lived in Seattle all his life and is dedicated to helping those in his community in the U-District. He has traveled through the Middle-East, Europe, East Africa, Southeast Asia and through the United States and still calls Cascadia home. He is also a loyal Sounders fan even though a recent project made both Sounders and Timbers themed needle exchange T-shirts.
Jama is the director and organizer at the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA) at the U-District location which is a needle-exchange program to prevent HIV, STDs, and Hepatitis-C from needle or straw sharing.
Jama started volunteering in the U-district with the needle exchange founder Bob Quinn in 1996 after losing a close friend to a heroin overdose. Jama became an employee of the needle exchange when the organization transferred to the Street Outreach Service and became coordinator shortly after.
In 2007, the program lost all funding and Jama and his co-workers had to re-start the exchange. Jama, along with Tom Fitzpatrick and Jeff Corey founded PHRA in 2007 out of the University United Methodist Church basement with an entrance to the alley.
“He [Bob Quinn] was never a supporter of us moving to the alley because he felt like HIV shouldn’t be a back alley disease,” Jama said.
Jama would like to move to University Way or The Ave as locals call it, but cannot afford the rent space there. Still, the PHRA has expanded from the U-district to locations in Portland, Olympia, and Everett and even set up a delivery service.
The PHRA has a booth at Hempfest every year and is currently working on creating a safe consumption room, along with engaging and providing better services for smokers.
The following is an edited interview with Shilo Jama.
Could you give a brief history of the needle exchange and why you decided to form the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance?
“I felt like our community of homeless people and drug users were being discriminated against… We [the founders of PHRA] decided to instead of making it bureaucratically run we would make it user or participant run so we engaged drug users in all decision making power and capability… I’ve known many people who have died of heroin overdoses which is a preventable death that is really caused by stigma and hatred and the screwed up drug war we have… It criminalizes people who are using drugs making it so they can’t get basic medical attention and basic services… When I started I really wanted to get the change around. When I went to all these non-profits they all told me the same thing; I’m a homeless junkie, all I’m going to do is die, but Bob said no come volunteer. Be part of this community. He taught me a lot of responsibility and he educated me on organizing. He taught me so much and he really changed my life in that sense.”
How do you get people aware of and engaged in the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance?
“We’re volunteer-run and I think that’s what makes us special too. We have over 200 volunteers and now we’re located in 6 counties and two different states so we’re spread out in this vast geographical area. I always think it’s beautiful. We started basically by this idea that drug users should run their own services and now we’re a Puget sound organization; we’re in Portland. Think about that. This tiny little spot in the U-District has programs now in Portland. We’re no longer a U-District organization, we’re no longer a Seattle organization, we’re a Cascadian organization. This is our region and this is our community.”
How did the community and the organization expand?
“It’s really the drug users. It’s really the people who come to our service… We always do what’s right, not what’s pretty. I’ve always thought of that as a Cascadian philosophy and I think our area and region has its own libertarian edge of individuality but it’s also that intense community spirit of doing what’s right and doing what matters… I think we also have a spirit of trying to build a better world and stop focusing on what we can’t do but start focusing on what we can and start reaching for the stars to make that better world and I think that is the spirit of Cascadia.”
Tell me a little more about your traveling experience and what you learned from it.
“Everywhere I go I miss our rain. It sounds really funny but I miss that trickle down, misty rain that you can kind of walk for hours without really being wet… I love interacting with complete strangers because they’re some of the most polite people you meet. It’s something about us. Finding that different way of being. We’re weird. We’re fine spending money on food. I realize that I end up spending more money on going out to eat than I am like buying a new I-pad. For me it’s about having conversations in cafes and over food and over drugs or alcohol and engaging each other about new ideas and what we can build.”
What event was the most memorable that you held with the needle exchange?
“The two most memorable events we’ve ever done was one was Bob Quinn’s funeral. That was memorable in the sense that he was a figure that was like my father. A lot of people get focused on the “I was born here.” Bob wasn’t born here, he was born in Yorktown, Saskatchewan but he really represented the spirit of this place. He brought his culture and identity and made our culture and identity better by being here. There is where I think the spirit is; that love and compassion. The other most memorable event for me was our 25th anniversary mainly because I got to see people from so many different generations. You have that sense of no one individual created this change in how we see drug users and how we see our community members. When we started people didn’t even see homeless people in the University district residents and I like to believe that we do see them as residents today and we do see them as part of our community. That’s something I’m very proud of.”
What does Cascadia mean to you?
“It’s a big definition because it can describe our geographical area, it also means love to me and it means community. It means mountains and it means forests. It means the deserts and it means my community and where I’m from. For me what it’s a spirit of the land that is older than memory and is building for a future that will live forever… It is us. It is the Timbers/Sounders rivalry. That is Cascadia just like a salmon bake and salmon jerky is Cascadia too. It is the land that has been here forever and gone by many names and has many spirits throughout it.”
What inspires you about Cascadia and its people?
“What inspires me is this idea to change the world we live in, to become more environmentally friendly but also engaging hunters. To also creating a foundation and recognizing that I am a decedent from a people who came here and oppressed natives and first nations people and that first nations spirit still lives on and that we inhabit this land as a family, as a community with all of our love and all of our injustice together.”
What are some of the most difficult parts of working at PHRA?
“Dealing with the drug war because watching so many people needlessly die is not helpful.”
What are some of the most rewarding parts of working at PHRA?
“The most rewarding is seeing people come alive and I think for us building people’s self-identity and building people’s self-awareness and bringing back love into their life. I think it’s the most rewarding thing to see people begin to love themselves for who they are. We always say, be the best damn drug user you can be, we love you just the way you are. We’re proud of you just the way you are and I’m honored to call you friend and family.”
What advice would you give to people reading this article?
“I think that in every single interaction with another human being you should remember about how many people don’t feel connected in our world and feel alone. You could be the one person to give them hope and to give them change. Remember when you see someone who’s living on the streets or someone you see who’s using drugs, imagine if you were not told in the last three years that you were loved. So looking at your friends and looking at your family and reminding them that you love them because that can be the most powerful thing you do that day.”
Taylor McAvoy is a Junior at the University of Washington pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. She has been a writer and photographer for the university's newspaper The Daily for more than a year focusing on editorial reporting and arts event coverage. She is currently vice president elect of the Society of Professional Journalist’s (SPJ) University of Washington chapter. She is also working on her own as a freelance journalist and photographer.