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After eviction from Holtec site, community health program will reopen in Camden

A mobile needle-exchange program evicted from its longtime location in Camden two months ago may soon resume operating, following an Inquirer article that detailed its shutdown.

A mobile needle-exchange program evicted from its longtime location in Camden two months ago may soon resume operating, following an Inquirer article that detailed its shutdown.

The mobile clinic offered clean syringes and provided screening for HIV and other diseases for eight years in South Camden until mid-August, when it was forced to close because it operated on a site where the energy company Holtec International is building its new headquarters. Martha Chavis, director of the Camden Area Health Education Center (AHEC), the community organization that runs the Life Works exchange, said then that city officials had stonewalled her efforts to find a new location.

Following a September story in the Inquirer that detailed the shutdown, representatives from the Camden County Department of Health and Human Services contacted Chavis and arranged meetings with city officials and others to work on identifying potential sites.

The new site has not been finalized, but Chavis said she believes the program will be up and running on Atlantic Avenue next month.

"It's such a relief to our staff and our clients," she said.

Additionally, county officials are working to identify a possible permanent location for the program, Chavis said, to allow the organization to offer its services in a setting more closely resembling a clinic. The exchange and screenings have always been run out of a van and an RV parked near Broadway and Fairview for three hours twice a week.

"A clinic setting would bring people off the streets, and nobody would know what you were coming in there for," Chavis said. "That would definitely be a plus all around."

Sterile-syringe-access programs have been cited by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as effective in preventing the spread of disease. On Aug. 31, Gov. Christie signed a bill authorizing $200,000 for the state's five such programs. Previously, the Camden program had been largely dependent on private donors.

AHEC's program 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 educational resources. At least 70 percent of the clients are white, Chavis said, with at least two-thirds coming from outside Camden.

Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen said officials from the health department and Lou Cappelli, director of the county board of freeholders, were troubled to learn that the program had been forced to close. In recent years, county officials have spearheaded a number of initiatives related to addiction and drug use, including the creation of a task force aimed at addressing the problem.

"We know what the scourge of opiates and heroin has done to the community, and if you look at the numbers, we're not talking about one community," he said. "We're talking about the whole region."

Last month, Chavis said a representative from the city attorney's office told her no locations were available in the city. But city officials disputed that, saying they had never intended that the program be shuttered. Spokesman Vince Basara said it was easier said than done to find a suitable location for a van that serves drug addicts and members of the city's homeless population; the program cannot operate near schools, for example, or in residential areas.

Chavis said last week that the meetings held since then with officials from the city and county have been productive.

"The support we have seen from the city and county has been so positive over the years," she said. "The important thing is that we are now on the right track."