Needle Exchange Program Goes Beyond Syringes

Nearly 30 years ago, Clara Cardelle, 49, began smoking crack cocaine and shooting up heroin. A Washington Heights native, she recalled spending most of her days getting high with other users under the George Washington Bridge.

Like many others in the community, Ms. Cardelle grew up understanding the risks of drug use. She started when she was 20.

“My mother had hep-C and my younger brother, Rolando, died of an overdose,” she said.

Ms. Cardelle has been sober for 10 years and is now a part-time outreach coordinator for the Washington Heights Corner Project, which works to keep the neighborhood’s heroin epidemic from spreading.

The Corner Project serves more than 1,861 people across the city, providing them with information on the health risks associated with their addiction and supplying clean needles to prevent overdose, H.I.V. and viral hepatitis.

The group was founded in 2005 by Jamie Favaro, a social worker turned activist, who began handing out clean needles and literature on drug addiction in the neighboring bus terminals. Since its inception, Ms. Favaro has hired a full-time staff of volunteers, including Hector Mata.

“A lot of my friends are either dead, incarcerated, or have been deported for drug use,” Mr. Mata said, explaining why he joined the group. “We’re one of the places people come to when they have nowhere else to go.”

“I've picked up over 200 needles in one day,” said Ms. Cardelle, 49, who has been sober for 10 years. James Tensuan / NYT Institute

Since Mr. Mata, 34, began working for the organization, he said, he has helped reverse more than 19 overdoses.

The increase in drug use garnered federal interest after statistics were released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January.

According to the C.D.C., opioid-related deaths have risen 200 percent since 2000, including 47,055 deaths caused by overdose in 2014. In February, the Obama administration proposed a $1.1 billion fund dedicated to fighting the opioid and heroin epidemic nationwide. Since then, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York have announced the formation of task forces to end the issue in their states.

“Opioid addiction is a national epidemic that continues to plague families in communities across New York — and the state has been taking aggressive action to tackle this crisis head on,” said Governor Cuomo in a news conference in May.

The Washington Heights Corner Projects works to combat these issues at a local level.

“Too many people are dying,” said Mr. Mata, who is an associate director at the Corner Project. “A lot of H.I.V. transmission, a lot of hep-C transmission, and these are all things that could be avoided if we educate people.”

Mr. Mata and his team do communal outreach, often working their way throughout the neighborhood, handing out clean needles and pamphlets under highways, bridges and parks.

As they were walking into Highbridge Park recently, a woman wearing a green belly shirt and large golden hoop earrings appeared from underneath a dark tunnel and greeted them. The woman, who was about 40, approached Ms. Cardelle and Mr. Mata in a familiar exchange.

Ms. Cardelle asked if she needed anything. The woman said she did not and stumbled farther into the park.

Watching the woman walk away, Ms. Cardelle said she used to be one of those addicts, not quite alive, not quite dead. She remembered the day she was pushed over the edge of addiction.

“Once I took that first drag, that first smoke, I was off to the races,” she added. “And since then, I’ve always tried to get that first high. For 20 years, I’ve tried, but I never got to feel it again.”

The Corner Project is "one of the places people come to when they have nowhere else to go," said Hector Mata, 34, an associate director of the organization. James Tensuan/NYT Institute

Each Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon, Ms. Cardelle grabs her black messenger bag and heads to the George Washington Bridge in search of addicts. The organization’s mission is to “improve the health and quality of life of people who use drugs.” To do so, Ms. Cardelle, who will become a full-time outreach coordinator in June, said that she is always ready. In her bag are multiple overdose prevention kits, one pair of black gloves, a pair of kitchen tongs, clean needle syringes and a red hazwaste bucket.

These clean needle exchange programs are the standard approach and the most effective way of handling the epidemic as they reduce infection, said Adam Bisaga, a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute who is trained in addiction psychiatry.

While critics of such programs say that they enable users, Mr. Bisaga disagrees. “These programs do not promote drug use,” he said, comparing critics of the program to those who say free condom distribution leads to increased use. And while he does agree that clean needle programs reduce overall risks, he recognizes that the upkeep of such programs can be difficult.

For now, volunteers at the Corner Project work hard to make a difference in their own community.

As Ms. Cardelle walked through the park, she looked down in front of her. Used needles, condoms and garbage littered the ground. She lifted the top of her messenger bag and opened the sealed Velcro to reveal the bag’s contents.

“I’ve picked up over 200 needles in one day,” she said, while bending down to collect one of the orange-tipped syringes in front of her.

To her right lay a tent made of branches and garbage bags. “I thank God each day that I never got to that point,” she said.