Professional and college reporters training collaboratively for the future of Bay Area journalism. Bay News Rising is a project of the Pacific Media Workers Guild made possible by the labor and contributions of its members.
By Brian Howey, Bay News Rising Staff Reporter —
Beneath the thrum of freeway traffic, Michele Magobet shuffles past a foldout table. Pausing to examine plastic tubs, she picks out a tiny candle, alcohol swabs, a handful of hypodermic needles. At a second table, Magobet grabs a paper bag containing a turkey sandwich, granola bar, and juice box.
A group of volunteers stands nearby, sporting studs, tight black jeans, and mohawks. This is Punks With Lunch, a patchwork group of friends that offers free weekly meals and a needle exchange for West Oakland’s homeless.
Alejandra Del Pinal and Ryan Dal Porto, the group’s founders, have struggled with substance abuse and homelessness themselves. Their pasts are part of what drove them to start the program. “I’m not looking for redemption or anything, but I definitely want to help out,” Del Pinal said.
Punks With Lunch has been distributing food, hygiene products, and clothing in the city’s homeless encampments every Sunday for nearly two years. The group operates out of a West Oakland warehouse and drums up donations from underground punk rock benefit concerts and online fundraising.
In April, Punks With Lunch merged with Community Outreach Harm Reduction Team (COHRT), a local DIY needle exchange started by Dal Porto. In addition to meals, the group now provides drop-off sites for used syringes, harm reduction education, and Narcan—a drug that helps stop or prevent overdoses in opiate users.
Loris Mattox, executive director of HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County (HEPPAC), said the idea behind harm reduction is that drug abuse is inevitable and minimizing its negative effects is far more important than ignoring or condemning the behavior. For those who use illegal drugs, she said, harm reduction means education about safer use and disposal of needles and pipes rather than punitive retribution.
Magobet, who regularly exchanges her used syringes with the punk rockers, says if it weren’t for PWL, she and her neighbors “would probably just keep using our old needles.”
Since COHRT and Punks With Lunch merged, more than 10,000 used syringes have been turned in and more than 4,000 collected in regular needle sweeps around tent encampments and parks.
Del Pinal works as a professional cook in several upscale restaurants in San Francisco. Before starting Punks With Lunch, she began to feel that her talents in the kitchen could be put to better use. “Feeding more affluent people felt kind of empty.” she said. “I thought that if I was going to do that, I should also give back to my own community.”
Homelessness in Oakland troubled Dal Pinal. Punks With Lunch was her response. She gathered some friends from the punk community, each of whom threw in $20 for groceries. On their first day, Punks With Lunch made 40 sandwiches. Now they make 120-180 lunches every week. A steady stream of online donations means volunteers no longer have to pay out of pocket for groceries. Attendance fluctuates week to week, and sometimes less than a handful show up.
Punks With Lunch has experimented with needle exchange programs in the past, but it was COHRT founder Ryan Dal Porto who brought a regular syringe exchange program to the group. Starting COHRT was personal for Dal Porto, who identifies as transgender and prefers the pronoun “they,” rather than he or she. “I struggled with homelessness and drug use for about 15 years of my life,” they said. “I feel like I have a personal connection with the population we’re serving.”
Now seven years sober, Dal Porto teaches people how to safely dispose of their dirty syringes and organizes needle sweeps in hot spots like tent encampments and parks. Del Pinal has used opiates in the past as well, and she said a sense of responsibility keeps her motivated to continue the program. At one point she sold pills to friends.
Some of the friends she used to sell drugs to are homeless addicts now, and use Punks With Lunch’s services. That brief period during which she sold pills to friends “had a huge impact” on her perception of drug use, she said.
Both Del Pinal and Dal Porto say that needle use is unfairly stigmatized. “Drug use is drug use,” she said, noting that legal drugs can be abused as well. “You legalize a drug and all of a sudden it’s OK,” Del Pinal said. “I’ve had friends die from drinking. But [alcohol] is OK because it’s legal.”
Needle exchange programs became eligible for federal funding in January 2016. Seven months later, a report by the Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) stated that needle-syringe programs reduced occurrences of HIV and hepatitis C infections.
But Mattox said that when she started working for HEPPAC in the mid-’90s, politicians in the Bay Area were largely opposed to such programs. I was told back in the day that we were committing genocide, that our services were killing communities,” she said.
Dr. Paul Chabot, president and founder of the Coalition for a Drug Free California, said that programs like Punks With Lunch and HEPPAC impede the fight against drug use. “It’s another stupid idea by liberal morons in California,” he said. “It helps people continue to use illegal drugs.”
Chabot downplayed the CDC’s findings that clean needle distribution greatly reduces disease transmission. “Who cares? The point is we’re trying to get people not to use drugs in the first place,” he said. “We should get to the root of the problem and not fix an ailment because of the problem.”
For now, Punks With Lunch is focused on expanding its volunteer base and offering services more frequently. Currently, the group offers food and needle exchanges every Sunday afternoon at Fifth and Brush streets and at 35th and Peralta streets. Needle exchanges are also available 6-8 p.m. Wednesdays at Grove Shafter Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
The founders hope the group will eventually register as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. They envision a future for the organization that includes an office providing methadone and Suboxone referrals to recovering addicts, and a cadre of caseworkers to provide resources and assistance for individuals.
As afternoon shadows stretch across the busy intersection, the Punks With Lunch team packs up its tables and heads off to its second stop to hand out the remainder of its lunches and distribute more Narcan. Magobet watches the neon mohawks disappear. When they’re gone, she walks back to her tent, holding a paper bag in each arm. One bag will ease her hunger for the day, the other may keep her alive another day.