Needle exchange program draws questions, little opposition from Carrick residents
August 14, 2018
A new proposal for a needle exchange service in Carrick was met with questions but no contention from residents at last Monday’s meeting of the Carrick/Overbrook Block Watch in the former Birmingham United Church of Christ on Carrick Avenue.
Prevention Point Pittsburgh is looking at the parking lot of the United Methodist Church on Spencer Avenue as a new location for their mobile outreach vehicle in an attempt to make syringe exchange services more accessible to south Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The service would operate on Thursday afternoons.
The Prevention Point program would allow anyone to drop off used syringes and obtain clean needles and materials that encourage safe injection practices and prevent the spread of diseases. Locations are staffed with counselors capable of prescribing the overdose reversal drug Naloxone.
Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, introduced Prevention Point at last week’s meeting and said the department has been very supportive of their operation over the years.
“A needle exchange program is not just about giving out clean needles,” Dr. Hacker said. “It’s also about making sure certain diseases aren’t passed.”
Aaron Arnold, executive director of Prevention Point also spoke about the non-profit’s services and the overall mission.
According to Mr. Arnold, Prevention Point provides counseling to individuals on their first visit in order to understand injection frequency and drug use habits. They’re then able to provide program participants with the appropriate quantity of clean needles.
In addition to needle exchange, Prevention Point also offers HIV and Hepatitis C testing, safe injection counseling, and referrals to specialty or primary care resources.
Mr. Arnold said demand for Prevention Point’s needle exchange services has grown significantly over the last few years. The service now operates in three locations: East Liberty, Perry Hilltop, and the Hill District.
In 2012, Prevention Point distributed an average of 4,000 syringes per week. As of June 2018 that number has increased to nearly 10,000 syringes per week. The program distributed 475,750 syringes and 3,770 doses of naloxone in 2017.
“Some people look at that as bad news, but I look at it as a good thing that people are coming to use our services, and people are becoming aware of the risks of injecting.” Mr. Arnold said.
Mr. Arnold added while Carrick ranks among the top of county neighborhoods for overdose deaths and 911 calls, it ranks as a middle tier neighborhood for Prevention Point services.
Out of 100 households surveyed throughout Carrick, 65 supported the idea of having a syringe exchange service in the neighborhood.
“We don’t have a site accessible to south Pittsburgh,” Mr. Arnold said. “When we were thinking of places we need to be, it seems like we’re missing a lot of people down in Carrick.”
Mr. Arnold gave the audience the opportunity to provide feedback and several residents posed questions regarding Prevention Point operating procedures and its anticipated impact on the community.
A resident asked if free injection resources would lead to a higher quantity of discarded needles throughout the neighborhood.
Mr. Arnold said data has shown that neighborhoods with Prevention Point services are more likely to see fewer discarded syringes as program participants usually return contaminated needles for proper disposal.
Another resident asked how the presence of Prevention Point on Spencer Avenue would impact surrounding areas of the neighborhood.
Mr. Arnold said that the United Methodist Church on Spencer Avenue was specifically chosen because it’s off of the “main drag” and away from school bus stops. He said that program participants are usually “in and out” and are unlikely to congregate around a location.
Block watch organizer Carol Anthony said residents could be concerned that the presence of Prevention Point may lead to an increase in drug sale activity in the area.
In response, Mr. Arnold said Prevention Point works hand in hand with law enforcement and there has never been an incident that has required police attention. The organization has also never received a complaint from a host community regarding the operation of their services.
“Our residents care so much about getting resources, so they’re self-policing the situation,” Mr. Arnold said.
Prevention Point has already received approval from the church council to use the parking lot. The next step is to seek approval from the Allegheny Health Department, and will then look to take the proposal to city council.
Following the presentation, Zone 3 officer Christine Luffey gave a brief crime report and distributed a handout that detailed 97 police responses to criminal incidents in Carrick and Overbrook between July 2 and August 8.