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Syringe exchange program meets active drug users where they are

Harm reduction services like syringe exchange programs are not often the first programs promoted as treatment for opioid addictions. But staff members at Trillium’s local program want active users to know there are other options, if more traditional and clinical methods of treatment don’t work for them.

The Trillium Syringe Exchange Program on Central Avenue feels like a college student’s house. There’s a small kitchen where you can grab a plate of pasta if you’re hungry. The couches in the living room are worn in and there is always coffee. It’s bright inside, with Halloween decorations on the windows, and even though staff members keep mentioning how cold it is, it’s much warmer than being outside in the rain. 

Syringe exchange programs often get a bad rap, since they give out free needles to active drug users and teach proper wound care and safe injection practices. Mary-Jo Weegar is the manager of the program and says their approach is about garnering trust and meeting people where they are.

“And that is what gets them to really think, ‘Hmm, maybe these people can help me. Maybe when I am ready, maybe it will be tonight, maybe it will be tomorrow, maybe it will be two years from now, but these are the people that I think I can have that conversation with.’ ”

The program is open Monday through Friday, 1 to 4 pm, and until 6:30pm on Thursdays. When someone visits for the first time, a confidential and anonymous intake process begins: Where is this person at with their usage? How did they graduate to the point they are at now? What age did they start using? What amount do they use now?

After the intake, the staff sets that person up to be as healthy as possible when they leave the building, including as many new syringes as they need until their next visit.

Julie Ritzler-Shelling is the Director of Community Health Initiatives at Trillium. She says they provide needles so people don’t share and spread diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, but also so that active users don’t reuse needles on themselves.

“The first time that you use a new needle, it becomes incredibly dull. And so if you reuse that needle, even if it’s on yourself, you’re not spreading disease per say, but you are probably tearing up your skin, inflaming your veins. And that can lead to bacterial infections, abscesses, systemic sepsis, endocarditis, heart valve replacement, a six week stay in the hospital.”

Along with the supplies and resources, Community Outreach Specialist at the center Tom Deblase says this is a place to find community.

“Using drugs, using hard drugs intravenously too, it’s like a really lonely place. And the way our society is set up, like as soon as you find out someone’s using needles, you just push them away. We have this tendency of families — and I’m not judging in any way — but when you find out a family member is using drugs, what I think is the trend or, in my opinion, is that it’s too much. It’s too complicated. We’re gonna push that away; we can’t deal with it.”

Other staff members agreed that this space is a place for active users to get food, watch TV, sit down and relax for a moment. Deblase says many of their clients are homeless, and whatever they can do to help ease the chaos of that life is helpful.

“People say to me like, ‘This is the only place I can wear short sleeve shirts, this is the only place I’m comfortable being,’ or having conversations that they’re ashamed to have otherwise.”

Shame is something else Ritzler-Shelling  says, that the program tries to combat daily.

“We have people who come in through our doors, who, they feel ashamed of themselves because their lives have gotten to this point in time. And somebody who feels ashamed of themselves has no reason to seek treatment, has no reason to stop using substances because they feel worthless.”

That’s why the exchange program focuses on simply being there for clients for whatever they need, whether its help finding a detox bed, or just support.

Walter says that’s what worked for him.

“I don’t know if anyone’s every tried shooting dope with a nail, but that’s what a used syringe feels like.”

He says after being in and out of rehabs, this place has kept him clean the longest. He’s homeless, and says the program here gets him food, clothes, bus passes to make doctor’s appointments.

“Trillium’s pretty good because, I don’t know for most people like when I need someone to talk…they always lend an ear.”

Walter will be 60 in December.

“I may not have that much left to give, you know to live. But the thing is I want to make my life, the last few years enjoyable. Where I got the quality of life back again. And when you’re doing dope, you don’t have that. And if one or two extra people were concerned about us addicts, maybe we wouldn’t be in the boat that we’re in.”

This story is part of “New York’s Opioid Crisis,” a partnership of public broadcasting stations across the state working to draw attention to this public health crisis.