Getting out the word on needle exchange
Meet Abraham Brown, self-appointed marketing man for Camden's new needle-exchange program. After more than 20 years on the street, the acknowledged drug addict knows whom to tell about the blue van parked Tuesday afternoons in the Waterfront South area of Camden.
Clearing the Record
This article incorrectly reported the date when New Jersey passed legislation legalizing needle-exchange programs to reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases among intravenous-drug users. The law was passed in 2006.
Meet Abraham Brown, self-appointed marketing man for Camden's new needle-exchange program.
After more than 20 years on the street, the acknowledged drug addict knows whom to tell about the blue van parked Tuesday afternoons in the Waterfront South area of Camden.
The program could use Brown's help.
In the two weeks since it launched, only seven people have signed up for the Camden Area Health and Education Center syringe-exchange program, in a city with more than its share of intravenous drug users.
Camden County ranks among the top in the state for drug abusers, with 1,516 heroin and opiate users alone seeking help in 2006, according to the New Jersey Substance Abuse Monitoring System.
The state had more than 22,053 people who sought treatment for heroin abuse that year.
The city of Camden ranks ninth among New Jersey municipalities for residents infected with HIV/AIDS, which is commonly transmitted among intravenous drug users by sharing needles. As of June 30, 2005, there were 1,384 cases in the city, according to the New Jersey Division of HIV/AIDS Services. Newark leads the state with 12,720.
Camden's is the second syringe-exchange program to open in New Jersey since passage of legislation last year aimed at reducing the spread of blood-borne diseases among intravenous drug users. The state was the last in the country to legalize needle exchanges. Philadelphia already offers the service.
In Atlantic City, a needle exchange opened in a drop-in HIV counseling center in November and has already registered 170 people in a state-mandated database. Exchanges are also set to open in Paterson and Newark.
Part of the Atlantic City program's allure is that it is run by an established treatment facility. That exchanges are made indoors and there are free coffee and doughnuts doesn't hurt, either.
In Camden, the service is run out of a van and offers only the warm hearts of workers and fresh needles.
Whether addicts show up, Kim McCargo, director of the Camden program, promises that she and volunteers will be at South Broadway and Fairview from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. every Tuesday.
That's important, Brown said.
"If there's one thing addicts don't like, it's inconsistency," Brown said as he asked for a cigarette. "People need to know they can count on them to be there when they need to get what they need."
The needle exchange is an oasis of reliability in the haphazard and unpredictable schedule of scamming and hustling that addicts undertake to feed their addiction.
They'll use whatever needles they can find if the needle-exchange van isn't around. And that could mean death to users sharing needles with someone infected with hepatitis or HIV.
Camden's program is struggling because the law that permitted free distribution of syringes provided no funding, said McCargo, a longtime HIV/AIDS worker. Her organization pays for the exchange with private grant money.
Some money can be used solely to buy needles, while other funds are restricted to pay administrative costs, she said.
The result is a van that contains two folding chairs and a plastic table where clients sit for counseling.
"It's discouraging, but we'll keep doing what we can," McCargo said.
"We really need more money to let people know that using clean needles can save lives," she said.
Yesterday, Brown showed up at the empty gravel lot at South Broadway and Fairview, looking for the prostitutes with whom he occasionally gets high.
After discovering the exchange, he marched past factories and litter-strewn lots and over the hill he calls "the hump," to drag his friend and first love, Cyndi, back to the van. Cyndi, who did not want to give her last name because of the stigma associated with her cocaine and heroin addictions, was the program's first client of the day.
Once inside, McCargo registered Cyndi and handed her 35 syringes. Clients get one clean needle and 10 extras for every one they bring in.
A volunteer asked Cyndi, 40, whether she wanted addiction treatment and suggested an HIV/AIDS test. Cyndi went into a mobile health center parked a few feet away for health counseling and the test. A few minutes later, she emerged with the results.
"Negative," she said.
Brown and Cyndi then hustled off to score, they said. By the end of the day yesterday, three people, including Cyndi, had come to exchange needles.
Syringe-exchange programs have drawn controversy from critics who believe they encourage drug use. McCargo and advocates say such programs save lives and ultimately save taxpayers money used to treat those who can no longer care for themselves.
In Camden, the program has drawn much less scrutiny than a proposal to move a methadone clinic from near Cooper University Hospital to a site just a few hundred yards from the needle-exchange van.
On Monday, members of Camden's Sacred Heart Church gathered to oppose the relocation of the Parkside Recovery Methadone Clinic. But they had little to say about the exchange.
"The exchange is run very well and can save lives," said Msgr. Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart, who has been in Camden for 40 years.
"This is where the drug people are," he said, explaining that the exchange saves lives, but that he believed methadone clinics perpetuate addiction. He said he thought that moving the methadone clinic would concentrate the problems of all of Camden County in an area of the city that has struggled for years to remake itself.
In the meantime, Brown and Cyndi will keep spreading the word.
"We're going to tell everyone," they said in unison as they walked off briskly.