Five Reasons to Engage in Direct Service Work

Five Reasons to Engage in Direct Service Work

By Irina Alexander ’07, University of Maryland–College Park, former Board Chair (2010-2012)

In my senior year of college at the University of Maryland–College Park, my mind was blown (pun intended) when I found out not all sex workers want sex work to be legalized. Surely, I must’ve misunderstood what my professor was saying? Nope. While the sound of sex work legalization initially rang sweetly to my liberal ears, I soon learned about all the ways in which decriminalization was much preferred over a system of government-regulated bodies.

Irina Alexander

Irina Alexander

This surprise led to my involvement in direct service work, working one-on-one to provide support to the people affected by our country’s unjust systems. By this point in my activist career, I had been deeply involved in drug policy reform for several years, but ironically enough, had zero connection with the part of the population most affected by our country’s drug policies.

I applied to become an intern at HIPS (formerly known as Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive), and found myself a few months later driving around an outreach van in the middle of the night in Washington, DC, having conversations about sex, drugs, love, and life with local sex workers and drug users. Let me tell you – definitely not a boring gig.

Since then, I’ve moved to San Francisco to become a full-time Outreach Counselor for homeless and unstably housed youth with At The Crossroads (also not boring), where I’ve been working for the past four years. During that time, I’ve become more and more convinced that direct service work should be a requirement for policy makers. Below, I’ll try to convince you why with my top five reasons…


1)    Policy has to be aware in order to be helpful.

People! This is the piece my policy work outside of campus had been missing. As an SSDPer on campus, I was a voice for my peers, speaking on issues that affected me directly. As soon as I started advocating for drug policy reform on a bigger level, I lost that connection. I tried to fuel my arguments for legalization by reciting the rhetoric we were taught, and backing it up with facts and statistics, like the good activist I was. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that numbers don’t speak, stories do.

And just like the well-intentioned conclusion I had jumped to about all sex workers wanting sex work legalization, I’ve seen too many policy screw-ups made because the people the policies were going to affect weren’t consulted.

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but after years of using the “we need to legalize drugs to keep them out of the hands of drug dealers” line, not once did I stop to think about how drug dealers would find a source of income … until I started working for drug dealers. Through this rhetoric, I threw an entire population under the bus in order to advocate for policy change that would have left them behind. Now, I’m able to look through a different lens. If we legalize drugs, how do we create a structure that’s inclusive of everyone? If we set up new regulations, how will people in the black market be affected?

If we don’t ask ourselves these questions, we’re going to continue replicating the very systems we’re trying to fight against. We can see this clearly happening with the marijuana industry. As more dispensaries that won’t hire folks with drug convictions emerge, more street drug sellers gradually lose what’s often their only source of income. What seems like a victory on the surface is actually causing an even bigger socioeconomic gap in the end, which was certainly not our intention to begin with.


2)    Direct service is policy change.

In my first couple years as a direct service provider, I remember almost feeling a need to apologize to the drug policy movement for taking a break from the “policy side of things.” But after a few years of this kind of work, I realized that both are crucial elements in order to successfully make a big-time change.

Most of my clients spend their days in survival mode, living just to get by. The instant they wake up (if they’ve slept at all), they go straight into figuring out how to get their basic needs met. Where will they shower? How will they eat without any money? How do they avoid rival gang retaliation? Where will they sleep? If you ask anyone in this state what kind of big-picture policy change they want to see, it’s unlikely that they’ll have time to think about it, let alone to answer you thoroughly.

Helping people cover some of their basic needs empowers them to think beyond the present moment and take a step back from the exhausting cycle of poverty they’ve been forced into, if even for a second. The more time and space people with less privilege have to call their own, the more they’ll be able to dream beyond the here and now.

Victims of the war on drugs are taught that they’re bad – that they should be thrown into cages, separated from their children, shackled while giving birth, stigmatized, and criminalized. By creating a space where people are able to see themselves outside of this lens, we’re making room to break out of the boxes that are holding the drug war together.

When my clients come in for a counseling meeting, it tends to be the only hour of the week they’re listened to with respect, the only hour they can sink into their emotions, feel supported, feel safe, or have someone to laugh with. And let me be clear- people deserve so much more than that! But with structures like racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia ruling our society, it’s rare they can even escape for that long.

The war on drugs is a human rights issue, so anything we can do to remind people they’re human and deserving of support is a radical move in the right direction.


3)    It’s incredibly rewarding.

People talk about the burnout rate with direct service work but rarely do I hear people mention the burnout rate with policy work. While working directly with populations most affected by the war on drugs is for sure difficult, I think people oftentimes confuse where the difficulty comes from. What’s difficult about my job is not my clients; it’s seeing my clients get screwed over time after time by systems that are made to make them fail. The connections I get to have with my clients, on the other hand, are the most rewarding part of my work.

Policy work takes time. It’s hugely rewarding when a policy you’ve been putting your heart and soul into gets passed, but sometimes it may take decades, if not lifetimes, to see a huge change. I commend and thank all you strong, committed, determined souls for sticking to it.

Direct service work teaches you to find success in the little things. Whether it’s celebrating the success of someone with severe mental health issues calling the office for the first time, or inwardly cheering for someone who didn’t sleep through a housing appointment, we learn to make the small steps count. And we learn that the small steps are actually usually pretty huge leaps. After understanding what one of our clients has to go through just to make it to our office on a given day, the idea of what it would take for that person to make it out to a legislative hearing to testify in support of a drug policy bill is put into a whole different perspective.


4)    It teaches the heart of harm reduction.

One of my first times on the HIPS outreach van, I overheard a conversation someone was having with a client who was discussing how proud he was for deciding to use speed instead of using heroin. He had owned a car shop, and realized, after some trial and error, that he was much more productive with his day if he used an upper.

Prior to hearing this story, I was already a huge advocate of harm reduction. We were working on a 911 Good Samaritan policy on campus and a Good Samaritan law at the state level. But after hearing this man talk about his drug use, I felt like I finally understood what the heart of harm reduction meant. During that conversation, we were able to give the client space to be heard, ask him empowering questions about his decision-making, and celebrate the life-changing choice he’d made. Had Nancy Reagan been in that van, he would’ve run away at the first “just say no.”

Through my experience, I’ve been lucky enough to work at organizations that choose this client-centered approach (note: not all direct service organizations do). I’ve seen how the model of harm reduction works for some people much better than the zero-tolerance approach. We meet clients where they’re at, and they respect us for it. In a world where judgment is the primary way of interacting, this refreshing spin can be transformative.


5)    It’s why we’re here.

None of us are in the drug policy reform scene for the drugs. (And let’s be real, not for the money either). We’re in it because we care deeply about people, and about living in a society that treats humans with dignity and respect.

Direct service work gives you a great sense of humility. I’ve learned so much from my clients in the past five years that I could’ve never learned from years of study. I’ve met people who, even after so many bad things happening to them, are somehow able to retain an inner goodness and hope for humanity. People who, even after so much grief, are funnier than the best stand-up comedian. People who, while locked up in jail for violent charges, ask for pictures of Looney Tunes characters so they can draw them for their kids.

Direct service work brings us back to the roots of why we got involved with trying to put an end to this war on drugs in the first place. And it’s staying connected to these roots that will help us be the best advocates we can be.

To find a harm-reduction oriented organization to volunteer for in your area, you might want to start with this list from the Harm Reduction Coalition. You can reach Irina at