Pubdate: Wed, 22 Apr 1998
Source: New York Times (NY)
Author: Linda Richardson


From a rumbling Winnebago parked on an East Harlem street yesterday, Mikki
Hidalgo had a few words for the Clinton Administration, which had declined
to lift a ban on Federal financing for needle exchange programs the day
before. She wanted to invite the Washington power brokers for a visit to
see what she sees.

Ms. Hidalgo works with a community agency that has strived for years to
prevent drug addicts from using dirty needles in an effort to stop the
spread of the virus that causes AIDS.

"They need to face reality firsthand and see the difference it makes," said
Ms. Hidalgo, a health worker for From Our Streets With Dignity, a social
service agency based in Chelsea that sets up shop in two vans every Tuesday
morning at Park Avenue and 124th Street.

Yesterday was a time of anger but also of sobering reflection for the
health workers who provide clean needles to addicts. On Monday, the Clinton
Administration said it would not lift the nine-year-old financing ban, even
as the Government's top scientists certified that needle exchange programs
do not encourage drug abuse and could save lives -- not just those of
addicts, but also those of their sex partners and their children -- by
stemming the spread of AIDS.

"It's a bunch of politics," said Scott Horn, director of outreach for the
agency. "It's been proven time and time again that clean syringes save
lives and the programs open up avenues for other sorts of treatment." For
drug addicts like Jill Hollingsworth who participate in needle exchange
programs, the news from Washington was not as important as the business of
trying to survive on the streets. A slip of a woman with a diamond stud in
her nose, Ms. Hollingsworth, 34, is a longtime user of speedballs, a potent
mix of heroin and cocaine that she injects to get high. Ms. Hollingsworth
said she wants to quit. She also wants to stay alive, free of human
immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

So yesterday morning, she trailed behind two health workers who were
passing out fliers in East Harlem.

"I have seen people who would already be dead if it had not been for the
needle exchanges," said Ms. Hollingsworth, who left the vans with seven
fresh needles, "and I could very well be one of those people." From Our
Streets With Dignity is one of nine needle exchange programs in New York
City that serve about 55,000 of the city's estimated 200,000 intravenous
drug users, according to the State Health Department. As many as half of
the city's drug users are estimated to be infected with H.I.V. New York is
one of the few states that make it a crime to possess or use syringe
needles without a prescription. The needle exchange programs operate with
waivers from the Department of Health, which provides them with financing.
At Positive Health Project, a needle exchange program that serves more than
3,000 drug users in midtown Manhattan, Jason Farrell, the executive
director, viewed the decision from Washington as a lost opportunity. "It's
sidestepping once again. This was an excellent opportunity for the United
States Government to reduce unnnecessary infections and deaths." Joyce
Rivera, who runs St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction in the Bronx, said that
if the Federal ban had been lifted, more money would have been available to
create new needle exchange programs and to expand existing ones that are
understaffed and underfinanced.

"The science is there," said Ms. Rivera, whose program serves about 4,000
drug users.

Still, others remained resolute in their belief that needle exchange
programs are bad news, including Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey.
"I strongly concur with the opinion of the national drug chief that needle
exchange programs send the wrong message to our children by condoning
illegal drug use," the Governor said in a statement.