Additional reporting by Thomas Wheatley and Jim Burress
Editor's note: Some of the last names of the subjects in this story have been withheld.
On an unforgiving block in the English Avenue neighborhood known as the Bluff, just spitting distance from the future site of the Atlanta Falcons' projected $1.2 billion stadium, heroin has turned the world on its axis. Young dealers on one side of the street hug the corner like wayward old souls, while aged addicts on the opposite side seem stuck in a prolonged adolescence.
In front of the burned-out stone facade of a former church, the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition parks its recreational vehicle for a special type of missionary work. The nonprofit sets up its mobile needle exchange unit here twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. The clients run the gamut from functioning to crumbling. There's a former radio broadcaster turned homeless train hopper who bears an odd resemblance to Ted Williams, the man with the golden voice. A man near the front of the line wearing a permanent scowl says he sometimes gets his heroin by working as a middleman who steers new clientele to dealers in the Bluff, a notorious hub of heroin distribution. Behind him stands another man clutching a golf club handle in one hand and a fistful of used needles in the other. One serves as his walking cane; the other as his crutch.
Before exchanging their used needles for clean ones, they approach AHRC's Director of Advocacy Marshall Rancifer, who asks if they want "the works," a paper bag that includes tourniquets for tying off before shooting up, rubber tips for crack pipes to prevent cut lips, mini bottles of bleach, citric acid to help dissolve speedballs, mini cotton balls to strain the junk out of heroin while drawing it into a syringe, and condoms.
They all know Rancifer well, so well that when he asks how they're doing, they know the question is genuine enough to tell him the truth.
"I don't call them clients, I call them guests," Rancifer says. His high degree of empathy is based in part on his own backstory.
A recovering crack addict who served four and a half months in jail on a probation violation before becoming a drug counselor, Rancifer says he's "lived two lifetimes in one." While the first one found him living on the wrong side of the law, his current incarnation has him straddling the fence between the two.
That's because the work in which he and his harm reduction colleagues are currently engaged is illegal in the state of Georgia — although it barely earns a double take from the Atlanta police officers inside two separate squad cars that casually roll by over the course of the afternoon.
For nearly 20 years, AHRC has worked to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Atlanta by providing wellness resources to substance abusers and sex workers. Last year, the nonprofit gave out 61,000 syringes to help combat needle sharing between intravenous drug users. The controversial needle exchange program is the only one of its kind in Georgia, where the distribution of drug paraphernalia is outlawed.
According to a 2011 report from the United Nations' Global Commission on Drug Policy, countries that implement tactics such as the AHRC's syringe exchange program (SEP) are lowering HIV rates among drug users more than countries attempting to eliminate drug use. Such studies acknowledge that SEPs are helping to slow the spread of HIV and hepatitis. But the stigma attached to drug use has earned the AHRC and similar organizations their share of critics who say SEPs enable drug users. That makes the nonprofit's public health mission a public relations nightmare when it comes to raising funds. With 60 percent of its $320,000 operating budget cut this year, Executive Director Mona Bennett says the nonprofit may not be able to open its doors in 2014 unless something drastic happens.
Cruise through English Avenue and it's clear this area has seen better days. In recent years, the neighborhood's houses have seen periods of more than 50 percent vacancy and bank ownership. On some blocks, nearly every third house is boarded up. And that doesn't account for the dope houses, hit houses, and trick houses scattered in between. For years, this west side neighborhood has been known as Atlanta's heroin hot spot. As if the area needed any more infamy, its underground legend expanded nationally with the 2012 DVD release of gritty hood film Snow on tha Bluff, a true-to-life tale in which the starring actor Curtis Snow portrays a version of himself as a drug dealer/armed robber. At least one good thing came from the film: After Michael K. Williams, the actor who played Omar on HBO's "The Wire," got attached as an executive producer, he and Snow made a YouTube tribute to Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition.
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