Safe drug injection sites? Not in my backyard, New Yorkers say

Voices of Community Activists & Leaders, or Vocal-NY, is one of the sites proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio for a supervised injection facility. Located at 80-A Fourth Ave. in Gowanus, Brooklyn, the nonprofit already operates as a needle exchange site.
Voices of Community Activists & Leaders, or Vocal-NY, is one of the sites proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio for a supervised injection facility. Located at 80-A Fourth Ave. in Gowanus, Brooklyn, the nonprofit already operates as a needle exchange site. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

New Yorkers living in neighborhoods that could be home to four supervised drug injection sites are raising concerns about the safety of their children and an influx of drug users into their communities.

Mayor Bill de Blasio detailed the plan for a one-year pilot program that would create supervised Overdose Prevention Centers inside nonprofits that already function as needle exchange sites, with staff on hand to reverse overdoses and social workers to promote rehabilitation options for those walking in. The announcement followed the long-awaited release of a 148-page study by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that deemed 2017 as the deadliest year on record for overdose-related deaths, with 1,141 fatalities.

Proposed sites include Housing Works’ 37th Street Health Center, Manhattan; Vocal-NY in Gowanus, Brooklyn; Washington Heights Corner Project in Washington Heights, Manhattan; and St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction in Longwood, the Bronx.

“You are going to have excess people coming into the neighborhood that don’t live here, that we don’t know,” Jeanette Ford, 50, said while standing across the street from St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction in the Bronx. If turned into a supervised injection site, the center, which is surrounded by several schools and residential buildings on Westchester Avenue, becomes a safety hazard, Ford said.

Echoing her thoughts, Ramon Reynoso, 47, voiced concerns for the neighborhood while sitting at a restaurant adjacent to the Washington Heights Corner Project on W. 181st Street.

“I just think they should make it another place,” he said, adding that the bustle of the Washington Heights neighborhood wasn’t conducive to a safe-injection site. “Not here. Somewhere else.”

It’s a misconception people harbor that safe-injection sites will be an added menace to a community, said Charles King, CEO and president of Housing Works, a nonprofit combating AIDS and homelessness with several locations across the city. The group also had been pushing the mayor’s office to release the report, which was first commissioned in 2016, for the past year, King added.

“It’s not just the homeless man in tatters babbling on a street corner. It might be someone who looks like they’re going to work, and they probably are going to work,” King said, referencing the abundance of drug users in the city. The mayor’s plan will simply give them a safe place to use, he said.

The problem with the anxious reaction to such sites is rooted in a stigma about drug addicts, Bay Ridge resident Bruce Rerek said, while working at a store near Vocal-NY in Gowanus on Fourth Avenue.

“It’s disgraceful that people would even think twice about aiding those who have been victimized by our society,” he said, adding that gentrified communities have especially solipsistic tendencies.

“Everybody has got an uncle this or an aunt that; there is always somebody that fell from grace. Don’t be so smug that one day it couldn’t be you,” he said.

Down the quiet residential block that is minutes away from the Atlantic Terminal and the Barclays Center, Stephen Powers, owner of Espo’s Art World, lauded Vocal-NY as a “great neighbor,” adding that they have a “positive presence” in the community.

Regarding concerns over having drug users on his block, he said, “I have more concerns about people dying in the street, away from their loved ones and away from the people who could help them.”

Two mothers worried about how those coming out of the sites intoxicated would interact with their children.

“You have a whole bunch of kids coming out of school and then these people will be high. And they can do anything to harm the kids, or themselves while crossing the street,” Mayra Negron, 38, said while picking up her middle-schooler from Success Academy Hell’s Kitchen.

The proposed sites are tentative and will be decided after a six- to 12-month community outreach process, according to a mayoral spokeswoman. The NYPD also will be involved in the planning process to allay the community’s safety concerns, de Blasio said on the Brian Lehrer show on May 4.

“There’s going to be a strong police presence in the areas around these sites to make sure that things are handled properly,” he said. “We do not want quality of life disrupted. We will not tolerate any illegality outside these sites.”

It’s indisputable that New York has a need for such injection sites, said Mark Townsend, who is affiliated with the Washington Heights Corner Project as an educator.

“People are dying in McDonald’s, they are dying in Starbucks. This is a health crisis that has largely been ignored,” he said, calling the way society treats drug addicts “pretty disgusting.

“If you went to an injection site, you would more likely go through detox and treatment than if you were hiding behind a dumpster,” Townsend said. “You’re more likely to behave outside the site, learn better techniques. More importantly, these sites save lives.”

Drug users surveyed in a focus group by the mayor’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also reacted positively to the safe-injection sites, deeming them a safe space that would alleviate the fear of victimization and death, according to the study. They voiced the need for additional health and social support services, like safe needles, doctors, psychiatrists and housing in supervised injection facilities, the report adds.

The mayor’s office is awaiting approval from the State Department of Health. The plan would also need to be approved by borough district attorneys and city council members.

“Where we are, on the front lines, people are dying [from overdoses]. They may as well be a cat run over on the sidewalk,” Townsend said. “One thing we know for sure is that what we are doing is absolutely not working and it’s time to do something else.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the location of one of the proposed supervised injection sites, which is Housing Works’ 37th Street Health Center, 301 W. 37th St.