By Tandy Lau
Protesters gathered outside of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Manhattan office last Wednesday to push for statewide protection and increased funding toward around-the-clock coverage for New York City’s two overdose prevention centers (OPC).
The two sites are located in East Harlem and Washington Heights. They opened their doors this past December thanks to a greenlight from former Mayor Bill de Blasio and offer a supervised space for New Yorkers to bring in their drugs to safely consume. Clean needles are available along with proper bins to dispose of them after use. If something goes wrong, naloxone and other emergency medical services are on hand. In their first three months of operation, the pair of prevention centers intervened in 342 otherwise fatal overdoses. But these sites also violate the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Advocates hope Hochul can create legislation to prevent the three-decade old law from endangering the overdose prevention centers.
“We need Gov. Hochul to immediately authorize overdose prevention centers so that we can spend that money on expanding overdose prevention centers,” said Jasmine Budnella, director of drug policy at nonprofit VOCAL-NY. “And it’s critical that we have the money to increase services, including public education on how to make sure people know how to use their drugs safely, and have access to Naloxone and signal testing strips and drug checking appointments throughout the city.”
The rally was largely composed of members of VOCAL-NY’s User Union, a group of past and present drug users mobilized by demands for safe use, harm reduction and the general right to live in a society that often abandons and fails them.
“We are the voice of people who use drugs,” said Asia Betancourt, one of the union’s long-time leaders. “There has to be someone to speak up because so many people stay ‘safe’—stay hush-hush about it and we do advocate around people who use drugs.”
Betancourt began injecting at the age of 13. During her time in the criminal justice system, she quit cold turkey and today serves as the executive director of Never Use Alone, a national overdose prevention hotline. But not every user is ready to quit, and the union is there for them regardless.
A New Yorker dies from an overdose every three hours according to OnPoint NYC, the nonprofit operating the city’s overdose prevention centers. Yet there’s pushback for such programs due to public safety concerns of existing residents. User Union member Armando Ortiz thinks these sites benefit the local communities around them.
“I was one of those people that you would walk around and feel unsafe from—you would see me sitting in a corner and doing drugs, and you would bump into my garbage in the streets,” said Ortiz. “Because of the OPC, I am not one of them any longer…I think that’s a very, very much a win-win situation, because I’m sure nobody wants to walk with a kid and see needles and people in the streets injecting or ODing.”
On the city-level, Mayor Eric Adams recently delineated plans for a $150 million opioid settlement fund that includes upkeeping existing needle exchanges for the two overdose prevention centers. On the state-level, the User’s Union is confident in support from Hochul, who lost her nephew Michael to an opioid overdose in 2017. But for now, they’re still waiting.
“I don’t know what’s taking her so long to lift that pen up,” said Betancourt. “But I do believe that once she does that, there’s going [to be change.]”
Drug users can call Never Use Alone for support at 800-484-3731.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w