“How I learned that syringe exchange really works on the mean streets of the South Bronx!”
Last week, I was out with our friends from Citiwide Harm Reduction on their Friday evening syringe exchange to drug users and sex workers in the South Bronx. For those of you unfamiliar with these services, syringe exchange programs give people new syringes and safe disposable containers, collect old containers, distribute condoms, hygiene and first aid kits and provide information about HIV and other services. This has all been legal and funded by NYS since the mid 1990’s when Yale and other schools of public health proved through vigorous studies that sharing needles was the primary way injection drug users were infected. If they were given an ongoing supply of “clean” needles, along with condoms, the spread of infection could be greatly reduced. It’s probably one of the most daring attempts yet to stem the HIV pandemic. To date there is still a Congressional ban on federal spending for such programs.
But back to my Friday night! Bailey House’s contribution to the evening was 20 bags full of food from our food pantry, portable enough to be eaten in places where there are no cooking facilities. Most sex workers are homeless or unstably housed. Because we now know that homelessness is one of the major risk factors for HIV, these connections make sense. This was evident as we rode around desolate parts of the South Bronx in the Hunts Point and Mott Haven sections and then into Harlem near the new Bailey House office at 122nd/Park. At each point we encountered a solitary working male, female or transgender sex worker. Few had condoms and they welcomed those as well as new syringes, hygiene and first aid kits. The food was a big hit.
Watching all of this was a humbling experience. I got tears in my eyes when the first food bag went out and its recipient’s face lit up. Yeah, I thought I was jaded too but this was so powerful in its simplicity …. food, housing, condoms, clean needles and a safe way to dispose of them if you can’t stop using just now. It’s what we call harm reduction. It may not be what you want personally for people or what you morally think they should be doing. But if you want the HIV epidemic to end and you want people to survive and not be infected or infect others, it’s the proven way to go. BTW, people of transgender experiences also need syringes to shoot hormones. One we spoke with said she had been shooting hormones since she was 13. Syringe exchange is the only program that helps her and others stay HIV negative.
It was good to be part of something so honest. No judgment. In needle exchange you just don’t give people clean needles, you offer them hope. Couple that with housing and food and you provide one of the most powerful prevention tools we have. In the coming weeks, Bailey House will be going out periodically with the Citiwide program and bringing along the food bags. We are in the process of putting together one that is nutritious, but can be easily carried in a small purse. Really! It’s about creating programs that people will use. It’s about extending community so that one day soon that person will walk in the door and take the next step with us and know, without judgment, we will be by their side. It’s about prevention and it’s about creating community.