Pubdate: Sun, 23 May 2004
Source: New York Daily News (NY)
Copyright: 2004 Daily News, L.P.
Author: Yoav Gonen, Daily News Writer

Help for the at Risk


Fernando Soto, co-founder of After Hours Project, fills out log sheet
before distributing clean needles to IV drug user in Bushwick. The
combination of the damp, chilly air and the abundance of police cars
seemed to be keeping the drug addicts and prostitutes off the streets
of Bushwick last Monday.

Still, throughout the evening, a slow trickle of clients stopped by
the white unmarked van parked on Knickerbocker Ave. to pick up "works"
- - drug needles - and condoms.

"You give out works?" asked Iris, 28, who wouldn't give her last name.
"Can I get some?"

Iris, who works as an escort in Manhattan, said she was a relapsed
heroin addict and a crack smoker. She picked up 10 needles and a bag
full of condoms from a volunteer standing by the open rear doors of
the van.

"I don't have hepatitis. I don't have HIV," she said. "You have to
have clean works or else you'll catch a disease."

Thus goes the mantra of the After Hours Project, a program started two
years ago by Fernando Soto and Richard Curtis to halt the spread of
AIDS in poor communities.

Soto, who has been working at a daytime needle exchange program for 12
years, saw a need for a nighttime program that would coincide with the
lifestyles of drug users and sex workers.

It seemed only natural that he start with his own neighborhood -
Bushwick - where one in 20 residents is thought to be living with HIV
or AIDS.

"My brother died of AIDS in '88. He was an IV drug user," said Soto,
39, who met Curtis, a Manhattanite, at the daytime needle exchange
program. "Since then I decided that I would dedicate my life to
helping people."

Since June 2002, Soto and two volunteers have been driving a van
around Bushwick and other Brooklyn neighborhoods three nights a week,
providing syringes and condoms free to people at risk of contracting

With only limited funding from several nonprofit agencies, the van
stays parked more often than not in order to save on gas.

But staying in one place has allowed Soto and his co-workers to get to
know many clients well enough to encourage them to get HIV counseling
or enter detox programs. A number have agreed.

"I know more people here than I know in my neighborhood," said After
Hours volunteer Robert Soto (no relation), 44. "They're not just
clients, they're acquaintances. We make them feel like they're human
beings, and that's a very important part."

In two years, more than 2,000 individuals have used After Hours'
referral and emergency food services, and more than 800 drug users
have participated in its needle exchange program.

These numbers offer some of the rare positive feedback for work that
Fernando Soto said is sometimes misconstrued as promoting drug use.

"It's not recognized, it's underpaid, it's underfunded," said Fernando
Soto. "Unless it hits home - your son, your daughter - you're not
gonna care."

But for the hundreds of people who have registered with the program,
the life and death issues that are in play are undoubtedly recognized.

"If there wasn't a needle exchange like that, people would be sharing
needles," said Jose Velazquez, 42, a client who has been living with
AIDS for 16 years. "It saves lives." 
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