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Aubri Esters, an advocate for safe drug use on the streets, dies at 35

Ms. Esters helped educate physicians and politicians about the reality of homeless life.
Ms. Esters helped educate physicians and politicians about the reality of homeless life.

Aubri Esters treated with compassion those whose lives many consider disposable, such as drug users she sometimes could save — and sometimes couldn’t.

“I have lost a lot of friends to overdoses, many in front of my eyes,” she once said during an academic panel discussion as she pushed for safe injection facilities that could reduce risks for those coping with addiction.

Informed by her own experiences using drugs and living on the streets, and fierce when necessary, she let her eloquent voice ring out in City Hall, on a state commission, and in groups advocating on behalf of those who suffer, often unseen, at society’s neglected margins.

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On Thursday, Ms. Esters was found dead at home after her mother, concerned when she couldn’t reach her by phone, asked police to perform a wellness check at her apartment near Boston Medical Center.

Ms. Esters was 35 and how she died hasn’t been determined, said her mother, Laura Pelkus-Esters. For now, Laura added, the death certificate says the cause is “pending.” The two last spoke on the Sunday evening before Ms. Esters died.

A member of the state Harm Reduction Commission, which was formed to advise the Legislature, Ms. Esters was a founder of the SIFMA NOW! organization, which advocates for supervised injection facilities and safe consumption spaces in Massachusetts.

In those roles and many others, she educated physicians and politicians about the reality of life on the streets.

A transgender woman who previously had been homeless and who was disabled to the point of needing a walker, she was candid about having used drugs, about her own sometimes uncomfortable experience in methadone treatment, and about the multiple kinds of discrimination and harassment she and others face.

Ms. Esters filled her testimony before government panels and her conversations with doctors with firsthand reports — and more.

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“Aubri really taught me how to be a better doctor and a more compassionate human,” said Dr. Kimberly Sue, a physician and anthropologist who is medical director of the national Harm Reduction Coalition.

The two met when Sue was completing her medical training — she graduated from Harvard Medical School and also has a doctorate in sociocultural anthropology. “Aubri was just a real force — really eloquent,” she said. “I was a resident doctor at MGH and she was schooling me.”

Ms. Esters also provided an education to politicians, who sought her input while crafting policy and legislation to address everything from the street use of drugs to overdoses and the opioid epidemic.

“I am very saddened to hear of the passing of Aubri Esters who was a staunch advocate for the rights of people who use drugs,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who served with her on the Harm Reduction Commission, said in a statement. “She challenged me to look at progressive drug user health policies in a different way and helped me to grow on these issues. She will be greatly missed.”

State Senator Cindy Friedman, an Arlington Democrat who served on the Harm Reduction Commission, which was created as a result of her legislation, said Ms. Esters “wasn’t just a voice. She was a doer. Not everything she said was going to make you feel comfortable, but that was great. That was her role. And she served the community she was advocating for really well.”

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Ms. Esters encouraged those outside her world to look at drug users with more empathy and less judgment, and to treat them with common sense, rather than senseless punishment.

“I learned a lot from Aubri about harm reduction,” said Jim Stewart, director of First Church Shelter in Cambridge and a SIFMA NOW! cofounder. “Aubri opened my eyes to a lot about stigma. She educated me very thoughtfully.”

Earlier this year, she told the Globe that police sweeps of places frequented by those using drugs left “homeless drug-using folks feeling less safe” and created unintended consequences.

In some instances, she said, “police and neighborhood harassment of homeless folks being seen sleeping” ended up encouraging methamphetamine use to stay awake, and prompted people to inject drugs, rather than risk being detained while carrying illegal substances. Those measures, she added, could lead to more overdoses.

In all her efforts, Ms. Esters kept the focus on those who historically have had no clout in policy discussions at City Hall, at the State House, or nationally.

“I am sick of having my people die every day all year long,” she said at one public meeting, speaking on behalf of the Boston Users Union, an organization advocating on behalf of those who currently use or formerly used illicit drugs. “How many thousands and thousands of lives do we have to waste?”

Aubri Esters was born in Beverly on May 11, 1985, and had lived with her parents and her younger sister, Cheraya, in nine communities by the time she was 15.

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The moves “had a lot to do with the ministry my husband and I were in,” said Laura Pelkus-Esters, who is a mental health counselor.

Ms. Esters’s father, Joshua Peter Esters, was a clinical psychologist who died last year. Ms. Esters also leaves half-siblings from her father’s previous marriage.

“She was a warrior. She was a fighter. And she didn’t always know where to put that energy in the beginning,” recalled her sister, who lives in Austin, Texas. “She would always be the one to speak up in the classroom when she felt the teacher was wrong. And she spoke up for fellow classmates when she felt they weren’t being treated right.”

An artist, a drummer, and adept enough at computers to hack into her middle school’s system, Ms. Esters attended the Massachusetts College of Art and Design for more than two years.

In her late teens, she transitioned and legally changed her name to Aubri. That was also the time in her life when she began using drugs, she said in a SIFMA NOW! panel discussion, sponsored by the Boston University School of Medicine, in late 2016. “My doctor at one point thought I was going to die,” she recalled.

Instead, she survived, entered recovery, and began assisting others as “a peer-to-peer harm reductionist,” keeping with her at all times Narcan, a medication designed to reverse opioid overdoses while they’re occurring.

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“I lost a lot of friends to overdoses,” she said. “I also saved a lot of lives.”

Ms. Esters also found a home in activist organizations, which became her passion.

“Any form of injustice triggered her righteous indignation, and she was courageous enough to voice it,” said her mother, who lives in North Fort Myers, Fla.

Ms. Esters was visiting her mother in Florida for three months during the coronavirus pandemic and had returned to Boston the Sunday before she died.

“She was loved intensely by me and I know she loved me very intensely,” Laura said. “She was a very important part of my life.”

Ms. Esters’s mother, sister, and friends will organize a celebration of her life and her work after restrictions on the size of gatherings are lifted.

Her death is “a loss to academia and to medicine and to politics because she pushed everyone to do better and to think outside the box and to think about things from a different perspective,” said Dr. Miriam Harris, an addiction medicine fellow at Boston Medical Center.

Ms. Esters was due to work with Harris on a project studying how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people who use drugs.

“She has done and would have continued to do so much. I’m really going to miss her,” Harris said of her friend. “I’m going to miss working with her — it doesn’t feel real. It’s such a huge loss.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.