Pssst! Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a 29 Gauge with Water?

by Harold Dopman

It’s nine o’clock in the morning. We’re on the corner of East 105 and Morrison. Chris, a 38-year-old recovering heroin addict and recently homeless white man asks passing neighborhood people if they need free condoms. Most answer yes and pocket a few. Some ask for “water” and receive a ziplock baggie containing small bottles of bleach, pure water and instructions for cleaning syringes; along with condoms, information about AIDS, TB, and hepatitis; and an Xchange Point business card promising emergency food and shelter, one-on-one AIDS education, literature, referrals, support and advocacy. A few wanted to know if they could exchange needles.

“When a Heroin addict needs dope and doesn’t have a clean needle he’ll use a dirty one. Whether or not he can catch AIDS is not really an issue. It’s as simple as that;” said Chris, a recovering addict who’s been clean now for 94 days.

“I started using drugs when I was a teenager, and after a personal crisis four years ago I started shooting Heroin. I wanted to die and thought this was a good way to commit suicide. All Heroin addicts are suicidal. The problem was that I didn’t die—I lived and my habit quickly grew from 1 bag a day to 10 bags a day at a cost of $150 to $200 a day.”

Even though it’s not illegal for a drug store to sell syringes without a prescription (the law is vague) he found it nearly impossible to buy them.

“Revco insisted on seeing an insulin prescription and Medic wanted to see my Drivers License, a scary thing for an addict,” he added.

Cleveland issued an emergency order over two years ago to allow a needle exchange program run by the Free Clinic to operate in the city. They opted for a Stationary program, where users travel to a specific site to exchange dirty needles for clean ones.

Kenneth Vail, who holds a Master degree in public health plus a degree in Anthropology was the director of the program and wanted to expand it to include a “roving program,” which would travel to various locations in the neighborhoods; but ran into conflict with the Free Clinic, and was asked to resign. He refused and was fired.

“One program isn’t enough” explained Vail in his melodious Arkansas accent. “Not every one has the same schedule or lifestyle. Some cities have as many as ten different programs.”

A recovering addict himself. and clean for over ten years Kenneth Vail and his Xchange Point “Harm Reduction” Program to reduce the incidence of HIV among intervenes drug users has battled City Hall and Mayor Whites Law and Health Departments for months. Every thing possible was done to undermine Xchange Points program to distribute clean needles, condoms, health and drug abuse information to Cleveland’s street people. When Xchange Point complied with the current rules-the City revised the rules. Police surveillance and threats of prosecution followed. He was forced to stop exchanging needles.

Vail found funds, formed a non-profit 501(c)3 organization and started his own program.

Even the morning of this interview, Vail was stopped by Cleveland police who asked if he is distributing needles.

“No,” he replies politely.

“Then what are doing walking up and down the street,” they asked.

“Handing out condoms” he answers and they move on.

An elderly black man turns and offers, “We put up with that kind of shit all the time.”

“Practicing Harm Reduction is more than just needle exchange,” said Dr. Joy Marshall, medical director of the program and former director of The Free Clinic.

“We talk to the people and say ‘ Lets work together to make this a better world.’

Let’s talk about safe sex! Let’s talk about other health problems!”

“Anyone who says needle exchange programs are inappropriate should go to Rainbow Babies and Children Hospital and look at children and little babies suffering with HIV through no fault of their own,” added Marshall with a missionary fervor.

Following a barrage of media exposure and threats of a Federal lawsuit (which might bring a barrage of national media attention) the City of Cleveland seems ready to UN-revise their revisions of the statute which has prevented Xchange Point from fulfilling their mission.

Chris, the formally homeless, recovering addict with the college degree from CSU sums up the situation this way:

“From a purely economic perspective would you rather spend fifteen cents for a clean needle now, or a hundred thousand dollars to take care of an AIDS patient while he dies, later?

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published March 1997-April 1997 Issue 20