Focus on Lyra Smith



In December, Lyra took on the important role of Development Assistant here at Spahr to support our fundraising activities. Lyra continues her service as a super-dedicated and effective volunteer with the Syringe Access Program—helping to staff sites at which we provide sterile syringes, hand out Naloxone to prevent overdoses, and link injection drug users to medical and social support programs. We are so grateful to Lyra for her enthusiastic and conscientious work for the community. Rhiannon Saltzman, The Spahr Center’s Harm Reduction Manager, had a sit down with Lyra to ask her a few questions about her life and activities. 

Rhiannon: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

Lyra: I grew up in North Carolina, but it was never home. I was raised as part of a well-known extremist cult that was antithetical to my being trans, and as such I was rather violently disowned when I came out of the closet at 16. I was then unhoused for nearly 20 years, hitchhiking around the country before settling in the Bay Area. Marin County has been good to me though. In the few short years I’ve lived here I have gone back to school, begun building a reputation in the local theater community, secured stable housing, gotten a car, and I was even recently hired as Development Assistant for The Spahr Center!

Rhiannon: How did you come to find The Spahr Center? Do you feel like you’ve found a supportive community here?

Lyra: When I first moved here, I had no friends, no family, and not even a concept of community. I literally just got on the internet one day and Googled “Marin County LGBT center” and was linked to the Spahr website. I started as a volunteer for the pantry, and quickly developed a friendship with Rhiannon after I started with the SAP. I still struggle with the concept of community, but I have found real friendship for the first time in my life.

Rhiannon: You’ve become an indispensable part of our syringe access program. Can you tell me a little bit about what the program means to you?

Lyra: Being homeless for as long as I was, I can’t even quantify the impact that illicit drug use has had on my life. I personally have never used anything more serious than cannabis. But I look back at all of the people I’ve known in my years on the street, and the overwhelming majority have died either from drug overdose, HIV, or as casualties of the “War on Drugs.” The last encampment I was part of back east consisted of about 25 people who rotated through. I am the last person from that camp who is still alive. Programs like Spahr’s syringe program don’t even exist where I’m from. I have personally seen at least 10 die people of overdoses right in front of me, and I had never even heard about Narcan until 3 years ago. Syringe access and Naloxone programs are vital to stopping the epidemic of addiction this country faces, because if our participants die from unsafe use, they have no chance of recovery. While no drug use is safe, we can help our community mitigate the risk until they are ready for treatment.

Rhiannon: Can you give an example of a time when the syringe access program made an impact on the participants you serve?

Actually, just tonight as I was getting home from my syringe distribution site, an unhoused man who lives in the alley behind my building (and who I have developed a friendship with over the last few months) told me how worried he was about his brother who had overdosed twice last week. I had 2 boxes of Narcan in my car and I explained how to use it. My friend will still have his brother next week, next month, and hopefully next year. They may both even be ready for treatment in the near future, and I’m ready to help them with that connection as well. What greater impact can we have on someone’s life than to preserve it first and then give them the tools to save themselves?

Rhiannon: How has your life changed since becoming a part of our program?

Lyra: My life has so drastically changed since becoming a volunteer that it would be impossible to discern what impact my volunteering has had on my life or vice versa. However, The Spahr Center has been a huge part of that change through the friendships I’ve formed and the acceptance into society that I have been searching for since I was a terrified child spending my first night of adult life in the half-demolished men’s room of an abandoned gas station.

Rhiannon: What is one thing you would like to tell the community about harm reduction?

Only that we all do it, that all people go through life practicing harm reduction techniques at all moments of every day. Wearing your seatbelt while in a car is harm reduction. Using an oven mit while cooking is harm reduction. Even something as innocuous as blowing on hot food is harm reduction. All that we do at the Syringe Access Program is encourage our community to “wear their seatbelt” when engaging in risky behavior.