Inside America’s First Safe Drug Consumption Site

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WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY HERE AJ doesn’t know why he can’t stop using drugs. He has serious health issues from reusing dirty needles and has been homeless more times than he can count. AJ has been in and out of detox and rehab multiple times. In 2021 alone, AJ says he was in treatment over ten times!

It’s for people like AJ who suffer from addiction that OnPoint NYC opened.

OnPoint NYC is the operator of the nation’s first and only sanctioned supervised consumption centers. The nonprofit, which runs two harm reduction programs in northern Manhattan (East Harlem and Washington Heights), provides life-saving services as the country seeks to cope with record levels of drug overdose fatalities.

A safe consumption site is a place where people can use their drugs in the presence of professionals who make sure they are safe and healthy. Professionals are there to keep users alive in the event they overdose.

In addition to the supervised consumption centers, OnPoint NYC provides wrap-around services to meet its underserved participant’s comprehensive set of needs including medical and mental health care, onsite access to Buprenorphine and other addiction treatment options, Hepatitis C and HIV testing and treatment, holistic services, hygiene and respite, food, clothing, and other critical supports.

People use drugs to escape pain. The problem is America has a long history of a punitive response to addiction, which only creates more pain for the addict and their families. We must stop locking people up and start treating addiction as the health crisis that it is.

A Different Approach

OnPoint NYC offers an array of services so that when someone says, “I want to try something else,” they can connect them. And it’s working.

633 unique individuals used the sites in 6 weeks with over 6,000 utilizations in that time. Officials in NYC had hoped for 130 overdose interventions in the first year. They far exceeded expectations with 124 overdose interventions in less than 2 months.

There is a false belief that harm reduction enables addicts to keep using. The truth is harm reduction saves lives and the proof is in the aforementioned numbers. Dead addicts don’t get treatment, they don’t recover, and they don’t get to spend time with their families.

When an addict overdoses at OnPoint NYC, they are provided with a safe healing place to recover with practitioners who understand what they are going through. They are made to feel loved, respected, and accepted.

Too many people see addicts as disposable when they need to be treated as humans. Harm reduction allows addicts to come out of the shadows and have honest conversations about their addiction and to learn why they are self-medicating.

“People assume participants haven’t tried treatment. Yet 100% of people who have used our program have tried detox and treatment,” Sam said. “They are going to use … we want to keep them alive. We want to engage them in conversation where they are.”

Harm reduction isn’t about enabling drug use. Instead, it recognizes that just say no to drugs doesn’t work. OnPoint NYC allows people who use the facilities to spend as much time as they need to feel better about moving on with their day. While staff allows people to use a variety of drugs in a way that is safe, they are simultaneously building relationships.

“These are beautiful, kind-hearted people that just want to be here, that want to be loved and cared for,” Sam said. “We know factually what we are doing is creating a dialogue for our people to get well. Harm reduction is the medicine for people.”

Harm reduction also keeps the community safe

It’s well known a lot of addicts use parks, where they can hide out. That’s why there were more than 100,000 overdoses in the US last year. The public says they don’t want drugs or paraphernalia in the streets, in schools. We agree! Bring the folks into harm reduction facilities to use. After they use, none of their paraphernalia leaves the building. And the data supports it.

In NYC, the parks department used to find 1000s of syringes in the park, but then there was a huge drop. The data shows the number changed when they opened OnPoint NY. The 13,000 syringes they used to find in the park are now in the facility being safely disposed of. This has also helped reduce infections that landed addicts in hospitals due to reusing needles.

“We are meeting people who use drugs where they are in their life journey to support them in building their self-worth,” Rivera said. “In celebrating life, we are humanizing people often not treated as human. There is love and care that happens in EVERY room at OnPoint NYC!

Invisible Stories is a mini-doc series that goes beyond the rhetoric, statistics, political debates, and limitations of social services to examine poverty in America via a medium that audiences of all ages understand and can’t ignore.

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