Fairhill: Needle Exchange Program Helps Addicts

The entrance to Prevention Point Philadelphia.

It’s a Wednesday and cold, too cold for October. The weather is gray. It matches the cement stairs on the corner of Third street and Lehigh Avenue. People line the stairwell leading to a sturdy door in the basement of an old warehouse. The door is marked with a small blue sign that reads, “Prevention Point Philadelphia.” Everyone is waiting patiently for the doors to open at noon.

Prevention Point hosts Philadelphia’s only legal syringe exchange program. The program began as an underground, grassroots organization based primarily on volunteer work. The program focused on the relationship between new HIV cases and intravenous drug use. In 1992, Mayor Ed Rendell recognized the growing problem and legalized the exchange program.  For the past 17 years Prevention Point has served the communities of Philadelphia.

As it now stands, there is a federal ban on funding syringe exchange programs.  Prevention Point’s income primarily comes from the city through the office of addiction services as well as private funds and donations. When the state budget debate stalled, the money from the city stopped. Government-funded programs across the state were forced to handle the ramifications until an agreement could be reached in Harrisburg.  Prevention Point was lucky. No one was fired. No services were stopped. Still, cuts were made.

A sign posted in the waiting room of the harm reduction center reads: “We are broke, but the city isn’t paying our bills, and the van was busted up. To save money, we have to be stricter about exchanges. If you do not have any used syringes to drop, we can only give you 10.”

The Winnebago is the bread and butter of the syringe exchange, making the program mobile across the city.  Earlier this year, vandals broke three of the  windows and chipped the front windshield. Due to monetary restraints, Prevention Point was forced to choose between van maintence or making more cuts in their programs.

Some of the staff from Prevention Point in the storage room. From left: Beth Ann Rue, Jose Marcel, Kelly Craig and Yaya Liem

“We used to give clients two tokens [to get back and forth from appointments], now we can give them one to get there and hope the place they’re going can give them one to get back,” says Executive Director Jose Benitez.  “We either fix the windows or buy tokens for clients.”

Tokens were deemed more important.

“We’re driving around our Winnebago with cardboard on the windows and we don’t have the money to fix it,” explains Benitez.

Now that the state budget has passed, Prevention Point is expecting to restore full programming in the month ahead.  While the city funds will pay for organization’s $180,000 dip into their direct credit line, the interest payments come out of pocket.

“When all is said and done, I’m gonna have a $10,000 dollar debt to pay for that interest rate,” Benitez explains.  “The city or state won’t pay the interest.”

To cover the unexpected losses, the organization must rely heavily on private donors and foundations. Prevention Point also plans to hold fundraisers to offset the costs the budget delay created. This means more work for the overworked staff.

“We’ve brought it to the city’s attention,” Benitez explains, “This is what’s hitting us the most.”

Despite the lack of government funding business has not slowed. Some clients shuffle in and out of the center while others spend hours in over-stuffed couches catching up with friends and staying off the streets. A client spills coffee from her Styrofoam cup onto the floor. Another woman runs over with paper towels from the kitchen to clean up the mess. Intern Beth Ann Rue helps a client search the Internet for a place to get a hot meal. Yaya Liem, project manager for the needle exchange program, comes in from the cold hauling plastic boxes filled with used syringes. The needle exchange is only one part of the operation.

“Everyone thinks the syringe exchange is the only thing we do because it’s the most controversial,” says Benitez. “Out of the 7,000 people we see, we have 3,000 exchangers.”

The other 4,000 clients come to Prevention Point for its other services, including legal help, street-side health and the trans-health information project.  Through a dedication to anonymous, non-judgmental care, the center has created a unique bond with the community it serves.

“We’re sort of the bridge to the recovery system,” says Benitez, “whether that be detox or rehab.”  In 2008, Prevention Point doled out 540 client referrals for drug and alcohol programs.

With so much going on at the center, it’s hard to think of the monetary problems that lie ahead. Right now, a client needs a referral for a pair of pants. Another man waits patiently at the top of the steps. He’d like a cup of coffee. He takes sugar and cream. He would come downstairs and help himself but he’s confined to a wheelchair.


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