This doctor knew he could save lives. But would his conservative legislature let him?

When Dr. Hansel Tookes stood before his conservative Florida legislature, he knew he had an uphill battle ahead of him.

But there were too many lives at stake not to try.

His voice was clear and unwavering when he asked the legislature to consider a bill that would allow him to provide drug users with clean needles.


At that time in Florida, it was illegal to do so — and as a result, Miami led the nation in new HIV and hepatitis C infections.

All photos provided by Starbucks.

Tookes knew the use of dirty needles was a pervasive problem. Some drug users were picking them up directly off the ground, desperate for relief but unable to access clean needles to prevent further harm to themselves.

This accelerated the spread of disease in the community.

“The simple epiphany that Florida needed syringe exchange came when I was a third-year medical student,” he explains.

Clean needles can make all the difference: In fact, Tookes says, the evidence behind needle exchanges as a prevention tool is strong — as strong as the evidence that smoking cessation prevents cancer.

“We have this tool that we were withholding from this vulnerable population,” he says. But harm reduction isn’t always the first line of defense when it comes to public health, especially for those who believe in a more punitive approach to substance abuse.

Tookes knew that the idea of providing drug users with needles would be a tough sell, but he was determined.

When he reached out to Tim Stapleton, head of the Florida Medical Association, Stapleton was skeptical at first. “I thought that [he would] become discouraged,” he shares. “[But] he wasn’t going to let anything stop him.”

Thus began Tookes’ journey as an advocate and his seven-and-a-half hour drives to Tallahassee, working the capital and building momentum to change the law — and change the lives of drug users in Florida.

It took several years of advocacy work, but astonishingly, the bill did pass, with an overwhelming majority of the legislature backing him.

“Every time he hit a wall, he just figured out how to get over that wall,” Stapleton explained.

And Tookes’ persistence paid off.

On Dec. 1, 2016 — fittingly, World AIDS Day — the first needle exchange program in the state of Florida opened.

“We serve 250 people regularly,” Tookes explains, “And we do an intake where we offer anonymous HIV and hepatitis C testing.”

The exchange also began offering the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone (Narcan) in April — a decision that has already prevented numerous tragedies.

In just the first month, 16 lives were saved.

“So many people are dying,” Tookes says. “We had a responsibility to do something about that.”

The impact was undeniable. One center visitor, struggling with addiction, shared his own story of when he saw someone in the midst of an overdose.

“I had my Narcan, and I sprayed him. Within a minute or so, he started breathing normal,” he explained. “We don’t want to die. None of us do.”

Without the exchange offering access to Narcan, though, these completely preventable deaths would become repeated tragedies.

With unintentional drug overdose a leading cause of preventable death in the United States, creating access to Narcan can have a huge impact on local communities.

“Everybody’s life is valuable,” Tookes says. “Everyone’s.”

And it was that conviction that helped Tookes see this cause through, as a medical student with a desire to make a difference and now as an advocate saving lives and preventing the spread of dangerous diseases.

Check out his incredible story below:

He saw an HIV epidemic in Miami and decided to stand up and take action.

Posted by Upworthy on Wednesday, October 25, 2017

While Tookes began his journey in public health facing resistance and skepticism, his persistence — and his commitment to those most vulnerable in his community — has truly made a difference.

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Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

But in 2018, two things completely turned Olesen's life around. He was able to both qualify for disability and to move into an affordable housing community in Miami's Goulds neighborhood called Karis Village.

When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


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Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

Ending veteran homelessness altogether is a complex task, but communities like Karis Village show how it can be done—and done well. When government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate funding programs come together to solve big problems, big solutions can be built and maintained.

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