Putting Atlantans in Harm's way 

For the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, the state's only syringe exchange program, funding is harder to come by than a needle in a haystack

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THE COUNTDOWN: An AHRC client grips a fistful of used needles while waiting to board the nonprofit’s mobile unit. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • THE COUNTDOWN: An AHRC client grips a fistful of used needles while waiting to board the nonprofit’s mobile unit.

"If you want a chance and you want a change, AHRC is the place to go," she says.

Still, fighting the stigma that its efforts are at odds with drug prevention and treatment is an uphill battle.

"In the best of times, we're a hard sell," says Bennett. "We are not dealing with babies and kittens and puppies."

She also acknowledges that some clients are known to sell the clean needles AHRC provides to buy more drugs. "I would rather people sell our syringes and our condoms than to go out and risk arrest [for stealing] or risk getting a disease from going out and selling sex."

The South, in particular, is still in the dark ages on the issue of SEPs, which is largely due to staunch opponents framing it as an issue of morality. The ethical stalemate is an example of what happens when bureaucracy bumps up against public health and moralists win the day over humanists. While critics blame harm reduction proponents for enabling drug abuse, the flip side is that America's abysmal effort in the War on Drugs continues to enable the spread of HIV.

"When people ask me about the moral issue, I say, 'What's immoral about stopping the spread of infectious diseases?'" says Miriam Boeri, a professor emerita of sociology at Kennesaw State University, where she studied AHRC and other harm reduction programs around the world.

THE EXCHANGE: Gloria, who says she has been using heroin for 15 years, dumps out a bunch of used needles from a juice bottle to exchange for clean ones on AHRC’s mobile unit. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • THE EXCHANGE: Gloria, who says she has been using heroin for 15 years, dumps out a bunch of used needles from a juice bottle to exchange for clean ones on AHRC’s mobile unit.

In France, syringe exchanges are easily available via vending machines the same way condoms are distributed here, says Boeri. While there are just fewer than 200 SEPs in the United States, most are located in the northeast and northwest. And many are closing due to decreased funding. Meanwhile, Washington pols play political ping-pong with the issue of syringe exchanges. In 2010, President Barack Obama lifted the federal ban on SEPs only to have House Speaker John Boehner reinstate it a year later. There are Georgia politicians on the national level who support AHRC's mission such as Congressman Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who served as the keynote speaker at AHRC's first annual World AIDS Day candlelight vigil. But under Georgia's Gold Dome, "what [AHRC is] doing flies just beneath the radar," says state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta.

Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Young, who represents English Avenue, says it's hard to argue against AHRC's work, although he does think it "complicate[s] the old issue of providing cures rather than enabling folks." He says the community would be better served if AHRC was moved from a residential area to a commercially zoned site so that revitalization could flourish.

"We've got major redevelopment efforts that are about to begin, and as they begin we have to make a case on every street why a family should buy a home or stay in the community," he says. "And whether they would be willing to stay next to Atlanta Harm Reduction is not one of the questions that you want to have them answer."

It's the convenience of AHRC, however, that makes it such a valued neighborhood institution for clients who live in the immediate area.

"We're in the belly of the beast," as the Ted Williams sound-alike, Bilal, puts it. Other employees of AHRC, including Outreach Specialist Verna Gaines and Executive Administrative Assistant Sheba Bonner, argue that without harm reduction in the neighborhood, English Avenue would return to the days when dirty needles littered the streets.

The AHRC's clientele isn't limited to the English Avenue and Vine City areas. The nonprofit, which tracks all of its clients by ZIP code, serves people throughout metro Atlanta. AHRC also provides Atlanta police with protective cases in which to place dirty needles when arresting addicts. As far as policing AHRC for running afoul of Georgia's drug paraphernalia law, the Atlanta Police Department provided the following statement: "Currently there have been no arrests as a result of the activities of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition in the English Avenue area."

Boeri likens talk of revitalization in English Avenue to a "pie-in-the-sky" ploy to move developers in and current residents out. "From my view of that [area], it's been neglected by politicians for years."

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