Pubdate: Mon, 13 Nov 2006
Source: AM New York (NY)
Copyright: 2006 AM New York
Author: Justin Rocket Silverman, Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Harm Reduction)
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


When 39-year-old Leah began using heroin 10 years ago, the 
gentrification of the East Village was already well under way. The 
Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988 - a major defeat for the local 
squatters and curbside drug dealers - was a distant memory. The 
ensuing decade brought only more wealthy residents, overpriced 
cocktails and exorbitant rents.

But for Leah, the needle exchange has remained constant.

"Sometimes I'm surprised that the neighbors don't make a bigger deal 
of it," said Leah, who didn't give her last name. "But if the needle 
exchange wasn't out here, I can tell you right now there would be a 
lot of people in this park sharing dirty needles."

Yet in the 14 years since the state legalized needle exchanges, 
including the one at Tompkins, some question whether the exchange 
still belongs just outside the park and in other increasingly 
well-off neighborhoods, such as the West Village, the Lower East Side 
and parts of the Bronx and Queens. The program started when drug 
users were drawn to the area, and the concern among some observers is 
that its presence continues to attract the very people who have left 
the neighborhoods.

Among those critics is Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), who 
successfully fought efforts to introduce a needle exchange to his 
district, arguing it would bring more addicts to the area.

"It's never a good idea for government to implicitly endorse illegal 
activity," Vallone said. "It sends a terrible message to our 
impressionable youth."

To avoid justifying these criticisms, the exchange is a low-profile 
affair. A table is set up on a sidewalk near the park, and is covered 
mostly with medical brochures. Plastic boxes containing cookers, 
bleach, vials of purified water and other tools are also displayed on 
the table. The clean syringes are kept hidden, and only taken out 
when a registered user presents his needle exchange membership card 
and his dirty needles to trade.

Perhaps it is this low profile that has kept the exchange off the 
radar of new East Village residents. A number of real estate brokers 
were interviewed for this story, as well as the district manager of 
the local community board, and none reported ever hearing a complaint 
about the needle exchange at Tompkins Square Park.

"Drugs are still an issue here and AIDS is still an issue here, 
despite all the improvements that have been made over the years," 
said Quinn Raymond, 28, a lifelong resident of East Village. 
"Something like the needle exchange is always a mixed bag. Are we 
helping people, or are we making the problem worse?"

Advocates say the program's success is hard to ignore -- it is 
credited with significantly cutting HIV infection among heroin 
addicts. The number of new AIDS cases among injection drug users here 
dropped from a high of 6,630 in 1993 to just 759 in 2004, according 
to the city Health Department.

That success more than anything justifies the program, said Richard 
Pinto, 33, a neighborhood resident.

"On the bad side, the needle exchange definitely concentrates some 
negative elements around it. But affluent neighborhoods can't say 
'not in my back yard,' especially if something is for improving public health."

James Colgrove, a professor of public health at Columbia University, 
said he could see how residents concerned about property values might 
oppose the needle exchange. But he adds: "it's a misconception to 
think that it will bring drug users to an area. It is started there 
in the first place because there were drug users around."

Thirteen needle exchanges operate around the city to serve the 
estimated quarter million New Yorkers who inject drugs. The Tompkins 
Square Park exchange is run by the Lower East Side Harm Reduction 
Coalition, which was founded by AIDS activists who used to walk the 
streets illegally distributing clean needles. The group now exchanges 
350,000 needles annually at exchanges around the area.

Leah, standing near the Tompkins Square Park needle exchange, 
acknowledged the neighborhood has changed, but said the program is 
still needed there.

"There are a whole lot less drugs around than before. I can attest 
that sometimes it's pretty hard to find something. But lately, I've 
been really amazed by people you would never expect use heroin, 
people with good jobs and high rent, out here exchanging needles."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman