A mobile needle-exchange program in South Camden that has served addicts and provided HIV screening for eight years has been forced to temporarily shut down after being uprooted from its longtime location, which is on the land where the Holtec International energy company is building a $260 million waterfront complex.
Martha Chavis, executive director of the Camden Area Health Education Center (AHEC), the community organization that runs the Life Works exchange out of a van and an RV, said city officials have refused to authorize a new location, telling her there are no streets in Camden that can host the program. The needle exchange stopped operating last month, when the city instructed her to stop running the program near the intersection of Broadway and Fairview.
Chavis said her calls and emails to Mayor Dana L. Redd and members of City Council in recent weeks have been met with silence.
'Major health issue'
"We are talking about a major health issue that is an epidemic in this country and this city," said Chavis, a city resident who has worked at AHEC for 32 years. "We are preventing the spread of disease. . . . At this point I'm left speculating that someone doesn't want the needle-exchange program in Camden. But I don't know who, or why."
Vincent Basara, a spokesman for the city, disputed that officials have stonewalled efforts to find a new site for the exchange.
"We can't guarantee a location, but we're going to do our best to find them a suitable location," Basara said last week. "They can't just go anywhere. It must operate in a place where it does not adversely affect the community."
Basara said that the city had presented ideas for alternative locations in the past, but that representatives of AHEC had not found them satisfactory. Basara also noted that the group was operating without a current contract.
It should be a celebratory time for those running Camden's needle-exchange program: On Aug. 31, Gov. Christie signed a bill authorizing $200,000 for the state's sterile-syringe-access programs. Previously, the Camden program had been largely dependent on private donors. Now, for the first time, it has about a third of its annual expenses funded - and nowhere to go.
Funding as validation
"That funding is such validation for our program," Chavis said last week in an interview at AHEC's downtown Camden headquarters. "We've worked very hard for people to understand the mission and purpose of that van. Now we just need to get back out there."
AHEC's Syringe Access Program is one of five in New Jersey and was the second created in the state. The program, which operated twice a week for three hours each day in South Camden, served more than 7,700 people last year, according to Chavis, distributing 138,000 clean needles and disposing of 85,000 used syringes. The five staff members who run the program screen for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, refer clients to rehab, and provide education on preventing the spread of disease. At least 70 percent of the clients are white, Chavis said, with at least two-thirds coming from outside Camden.
Councilman Angel Fuentes, who as Council president supported the creation of the program in 2008, said last week that was the first he had learned of Chavis' problems.
"We can't just abandon this program," he said. "We have to stand up for it."
Fuentes said he would speak to Redd and his colleagues, and aim to have the matter go before City Council in the weeks to come.
"Camden is a small city, but I'm sure we can find a place for them to go," he said. "We have a responsibility to address this, and we will."
When the needle-exchange program began operating in a vacant lot in South Camden, the area was a trash-strewn, mostly abandoned industrial wasteland. But in the coming months, it will be transformed into a state-of-the-art technology complex.
Holtec, with headquarters in Evesham, is in line to receive $260 million in state tax subsidies to relocate to Camden. The incentives were awarded in 2014 through the state Economic Development Authority's Grow New Jersey program, aimed to boost economic development in struggling cities, and the company has announced plans for a manufacturing complex, testing facility, and engineering center on 50 acres of land formerly managed by the South Jersey Port Corp., just north of the Walt Whitman Bridge. As part of the move, part of Morgan Street in the area will be renamed Holtec Boulevard.
Holtec declined to comment.
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