Jesse Harvey was found dead on Monday, September 7, in Portland, Maine. He was twenty-eight years old. I wrote about Jesse in a November 2019 Commonweal article about needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites for people addicted to opioids. After graduating summa cum laude from King’s College in 2014, Jesse founded two nonprofits: Journey House, which oversees four recovery houses in Maine, and the Church of Safe Injection, which advocates for harm-reduction programs for people addicted to drugs. I met Jesse the last time he visited King’s College, in spring 2019; he was here to speak at a conference on nonprofit leadership and social entrepreneurship. We corresponded by email and occasionally talked by phone. The last email I have from him was sent June 15, 2020. I owed him a response.
Jesse had a rough year. He had relapsed and overdosed more than once. In one email, he wrote that he had “recently experienced fentanyl poisoning and was out for 11 minutes, not breathing, reportedly blue skin,” before four doses of naloxone and rescue breathing brought him back. He had also been arrested and charged with two felonies, which he vehemently denied. He expressed a lot of anger toward the legal system. He was outraged by media reports that, to his mind, used his arrest to invalidate his activism. He confessed to feeling shame. “There are so many things I would go back and change,” he wrote. “I left a lot of wreckage in my wake, and I look forward to the day that I can make amends to those I’ve hurt.” But he also spoke of hope: “I am glad to be starting over. Despite my arrest, it is, ironically, a ‘clean slate’ of sorts; I can leave the industry and the perpetual grief and everyday [overdoses].” He committed, again more than once, to focusing on his own recovery.
Since his death, Jesse’s friends have described him as quirky and even a bit goofy at times. I also saw glimpses of that. While Jesse was politically “radical,” he never struck me as strident. There was a gentleness to him, and he sometimes seemed bemused by the world. He was passionate about the dignity of “throw-away people”—his term, and I doubt he had read Pope Francis on our “throwaway culture”—but he was also interested in gardening.
Recently planted some bulbs, which was peculiar because I always thought bulbs are supposed to be planted in the fall. I guess some are planted in the spring? I forget what they’re called but within just a few days they shot up and look ready to bloom now soon. Next to some old irises. I have court July 15 theoretically, but my lawyer anticipates the State will offer a better plea bargain.
He also wrote to me, in the same half-bemused tone, that “I just found out that my mom’s parents were faithful subscribers to and readers of Commonweal. My mother comes from a very Catholic family, and her mother used to work with Dorothy Day. They were all big fans of the Berrigan brothers.” Jesse had been amazed to learn from me that Dan Berrigan was arrested for civil disobedience at least 250 times. That made him a model for Jesse, though of course Berrigan had the advantage of years of spiritual formation.
In his June 15 email to me, Jesse says that he is “just riding out this pandemic, taking a break from social media and such for a while, trying to get into cooking more.” But the pandemic has not been kind to people suffering from drug addictions. As the headline of a recent New York Times article puts it, “In Shadow of Pandemic, U.S. Drug Overdose Deaths Resurge to Record.” The pandemic has isolated people, worsened mental health, and made it harder to access social support, like needle-exchange programs. According to an article in the Bangor Daily News, Jesse and a co-worker “were in Lewiston doing a routine distribution drop after the shutdown orders when a police officer told them that their work wasn’t a public health necessity.”
Jesse is one of two people I know who have died because of the pandemic, but not from COVID-19. After the pandemic is over, we will have to reckon with its effect on so-called deaths of despair from alcohol, drugs, and suicide, the kind of deaths that had already been increasing for years, especially among those without a college degree. It sickens me that people struggling with substance abuse felt abandoned during the shutdown. Jesse’s death makes me wonder whether we really do live in a throwaway culture. The outpouring of grief from those who knew him well is some consolation.