Marshall Heights leaders want heroin users to find clean needles in other neighborhoods.
When heroin users in Southeast’s Marshall Heights neighborhood needed a fresh needle or perhaps a blood test, they didn’t have to go far. Twice a week, a Winnebago Adventurer operated by the AIDS outreach program PreventionWorks would pull up to the corner of Southern Avenue and Central Avenue SE and open its door for business. It was a rolling source of needles, condoms, health-clinic referrals, and confidential AIDS testing.
Until last month, that is. At a contentious meeting last month, the area’s advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) made it clear that it wanted the needle-exchange program out of the intersection.
“Let them put that truck on Connecticut Avenue,” commissioner Mary Jackson says.
That’s essentially what PreventionWorks has done. The group has chosen to honor the ANC’s wishes and has crossed the intersection off the RV’s itinerary, pending further discussion with community leaders. So instead of entering the neighborhood in their six-wheeler, PreventionWorks employees drive to the area in their own cars and work the neighborhood on foot.
PreventionWorks Deputy Executive Director Fred Johnson says he carries condoms and ointments, handing them out to people who ask. He also has bleach-and-water kits on hand for people who need to clean their needles. However, in compliance with the desires of the ANC, he doesn’t carry clean needles, which are believed to be critical in slowing the spread of AIDS among drug users.
“There are a lot of people who need these services,” says PreventionWorks Executive Director Paola Barahona, adding that the service has provided more than 33,000 needle transactions in D.C. The group, she says, will not “[ignore] people who really rely on this program.”
Testimony of PreventionWorks foot soldiers corroborates Barahona’s claim. “They mobbed me for condoms; they mobbed me for detox referrals, meth referrals,” PreventionWorks worker Ron Daniels says of his pedestrian return to the area. A police officer pulled up and complimented him on the “good work that we was doing in the community,” he recalls.
But drug users have been feeling a bit stranded since the RV—and its familiar exterior logo depicting mountains, a lake, and trees—rolled off for good. “It ain’t the same,” says Wilma, a 44-year-old heroin user who says she started exchanging needles with PreventionWorks two years ago.
She and other users tell tales of improvisation—of people using earwax to grease worn-out “works,” or syringes, and bobby pins to undo stuck plungers.
“Now, with the needle-exchange program out of the area, you quickly see a turnaround,” says Jet, a heroin user who shouts “Wrong question!” when asked her age. “People are beginning to share works again because they are not available like that. People are hard up for new needles.
“All my works are in the lockup stage, where you gotta force to pry them open,” Jet continues. “You gotta use a jackhammer to drill them through the skin, you know?”
Jet says she’s given away at least five pairs of her own used needles to other users since the truck left.
The needle woes of heroin users don’t extract much sympathy from neighborhood leaders who see the RV as a junkie magnet. They tell of a once-clean intersection now littered with used syringes and marred by higher crime rates. They say that the RV attracts needle-exchange clients from Maryland, Virginia, and even as far away as Delaware.
“Junkies know where to go to get what they need,” says Jackson. Of the program, she adds, “These kinds of things we no longer want in our community, period—regardless of what you’re passing out.”
Johnson disputes the notion that PreventionWorks is luring drug users to the area to trade in needles. “Do you think…that needle exchange has that power—that people come in from all over just to get syringes? I wish people would do that,” he says. The out-of-state license plates spotted in the area, attracted by drug trade, “were there before we came, and they’re there now,” he adds.
According to Metropolitan Police Department 6th District Sergeant Charles Foster, the intersection’s Police Service Area (PSA) has seen an average of 25 to 30 narcotics-related arrests per month for the past six months or so.
Opponents also say that the decision to put the truck in the neighborhood was made without consultation of the ANC or other neighborhood groups.
“They did not come before the ANC to tell us what they were doing and why they were there,” Jackson says.
“Residents are feeling run over and pushed aside and left out,” says Foster.
With a full-time staff of only four, Barahona acknowledges, “We haven’t been as present at the local meetings as we really need to be,” though in addition to appearing at last month’s ANC meeting, she says, PreventionWorks people have attended meetings for the intersection’s PSA.
With their anti-needle-exchange rhetoric, neighborhood activists in Marshall Heights are effectively doing the bidding of Congress. Johnson says that the needle-exchange program had been operating at Southern and Central since 1998, when it was under the auspices of the Whitman-Walker Clinic and ran on city dollars. In October of that year, Congress passed a law prohibiting the use of public funds to finance needle-exchange programs; the program spun off into PreventionWorks, which is privately funded.
Some confusion about how long the program has been in the neighborhood may stem from the fact that the Winnebago itself was not always at the intersection. It first appeared there in September 2000, replacing a large white truck of PreventionWorks’ that performed the same services.
Another thing that rankles activists is the claim that the service provided needles to people who didn’t have any to swap—a point that commissioners say was proved by an undercover investigation by Fox 5 News.
Barahona acknowledges that PreventionWorks provides starter kits to users who don’t have old “works” to trade in. “Our goal is to keep people safe,” she says. CP