Pubdate: Mon, 28 Feb 2005
Source: Oregonian, The (Portland, OR)
Copyright: 2005 The Oregonian
Author: S. Renee Mitchell


Portland has a big heart when it comes to helping. But handing over tax 
money to help a heroin addict inject poison into his veins seemed a little, 
well, stupid.

Now, though, I'm starting to see things differently. After doing some 
research, I understand the public purpose of giving a drug addict a sterile 
hypodermic needle, bleach and condoms.

These gift packages reduce the number of women who contract the virus from 
direct or indirect contact with drugs. They cut down on the number of 
babies born with HIV. And needle-exchange programs are the best way to 
safely dispose of contaminated syringes so they don't end up on our 
sidewalks and at our bus stops, parks and playgrounds.

The programs, health workers say, are also an effective way to link drug 
users to treatment, HIV testing, health care and screening for tuberculosis 
and sexually transmitted diseases.

"We are fairly successful in getting them into treatment, which is the most 
effective thing you can do," says Kathy Oliver, executive director of 
Outside In, whose 16-year-old needle-exchange program was one of the first 
in the country. "The needle exchange is a hook in many ways to get them in 

Because of the Portland area's early response, we're doing better than 
other states on AIDS-related issues. Rates of HIV infections because of 
needle use are much lower than in other cities, such as New York City and 
Miami, where infection levels are in double digits.

What's more, almost every national organization that has studied this 
issue, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 
the American Medical Association, supports needle exchanges.

Several programs target those who work in the sex industry, gay people or 
addicts of color. Multnomah County Health Department serves anyone who 
steps up to the white van parked every weekday afternoon on Southeast 
Hawthorne Boulevard and on Northwest Couch and Southwest Stark streets.

Outside In works mostly with homeless teens and low-income adults, a 
population that's increasingly injecting meth. Police blame the meth 
epidemic for a plague of home burglaries, a record number of child abuse 
cases and most identity-theft crimes.

But the funding doesn't always match the need. Outside In went from 
handling 10,000 needles a year in 1989, to 450,000 today. The county 
exchanges about 20,000 needles a month.

This year, though, the city is reluctantly cutting off its annual donation 
of $23,000 to Outside In. (The agency still gets $73,000 a year from the 
county.) Instead, that money will pay for housing for the city's 3,000 or 
so homeless folks.

"We shouldn't have to make this kind of choice," says Beth Kaye, program 
manager for the city's Bureau of Housing and Community Development. "The 
bureau believes really strongly that needle exchange is an important 
program and a valuable program, and it's a program that should be publicly 

That's because, in the larger scheme of things, it's not about the addicts. 
It's about our children not stepping on contaminated needles. It's about 
the public not having to bear the medical costs of children with AIDS and HIV.

It's also about protecting loved ones from contracting hepatitis C, or 
worse. You just never know who is sharing fluids with an addict who shares 
needles with people who don't care about anything but that moment of 
contact when troubles melt away and reality is a kaleidoscope of beauty and 

Yes, addicts will do drugs, regardless. Some don't intend to ever give up 
that high. But giving them free needles when they turn in used ones is not 
about enabling them. It's about protecting us.

"That is really great for Oregon and great for Multnomah County," says 
Loreen Nichols, who oversees the county's needle-exchange program. "We feel 
like the investment is really worth the results that we get."

To keep the progress steady, though, we need to keep the financing stable. 
So, if you're inclined, send a donation to Outside In, 1132 S.W. 13th Ave., 
Portland 97205. Consider it an investment in you.
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MAP posted-by: Beth