Safe-injection site OnPoint NYC is allied with school next door
Editors’ Note: Knowledgeable Brooklynites with insights into their own drug problems will sometimes find themselves drawn to a spot near the 125th Street subway and Metro North stations, far north of their neighborhoods in Brooklyn. They are bound for the OnPoint NYC, located in East Harlem. The powerfully effective work of On Point NYC in preventing drug overdoses has become well-known, as the following article illustrates. Now, Brooklyn groups such as VOCAL-NY are pushing Mayor Adams to establish OnPointNYC in Brooklyn locations.
Anastasio Wolfe sits in a folding chair on busy 126th Street in East Harlem, blasting jazz out of the speaker beside him while he watches people go by. Wolfe has been a figure in the Harlem community for decades, so when he sees people suffering from addiction walk by, he points them to the OnPoint NYC safe-injection site behind him.
“This is called saving lives,” Wolfe said.
OnPoint has reversed over 1000 overdoses since it opened in 2021, according to its own data.
It has two harm reduction sites in New York, one in East Harlem on 126th Street and the other in Washington Heights on 180th Street, the only sites currently authorized to run supervised drug consumption programs in the US. But although Wolfe supports OnPoint, many of his fellow community members do not.
“Addicts come from other neighborhoods and impact our quality of life, our public safety, and our children’s ability to go to school without encountering syringe litter and addicted New Yorkers struggling on the street,” said Shawn Hill, co-founder of the Greater Harlem Coalition, a grassroots alliance of over 100 Harlem organizations, and an outspoken opponent of the OnPoint East Harlem location.
Much of the opposition, like Hill’s, concerns the Graham School at Echo Park across the street, with its bright red doors visible from the injection site entrance. The Graham School is an early childhood program that serves children from birth to five, and parents throughout pregnancy.
The school itself, however, is not opposed to OnPoint at all.
“OnPoint didn’t bring the substance abuse problem to our neighborhood. They came in and saved lives,” said Buchenholz the Executive Director of the Association Benefit Children (ABC), which includes the school at Echo Park, a neighborhood family center with an after-school program for children and young adults five through 21. “I want them to continue doing what they are doing, which is being the best neighbors they can be,” she concluded.
“It is an old narrative that the school is the problem,” agreed Jason Beltre, the Director of Community Initiatives and Impact at OnPoint who has worked closely with the school community over the past two years, adding that a lot of parents were worried when the site opened in December of 2021.
“We were hearing parents’ fear that their child will pick up or step on a needle,” Buchenholz said. “Fear that their child will see somebody shooting drugs in his arm and become an addict. Fear that the addicts will bring more crime here. Fear that they will be selling and tempting our teens.”
These concerns echo the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) view that opposes safe injection sites across the nation. Philadelphia’s City Council voted to ban such safe-injection sites across much of the city last Thursday for NIMBY reasons, and US Attorney for the Southern District of NY, Damien Williams, threatened to shut down OnPoint’s sites last month.
The OnPoint site in East Harlem does have its champions, though, among them State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who is from the 33rd District in the Bronx and chairs the Committee on Health.
“I also don’t want a child to have to see someone shooting up on the street when they are going to school,” Rivera said. “OPCs are the solution to that. They allow people to take their drugs safely out of public view, not in a supermarket bathroom or alone on the street.”
Buchenholz at ABC and Beltre at OnPoint are working together to address parent concerns. Buchenholz hosted a community meeting after the site opened in December of 2021, where members of the ABC community asked OnPoint to keep needles off the streets and to park NARCAN provider van on the side of the street opposite the school.
“And so began a relationship between neighbors,” Buchenholz said. “They moved the van the next day, and every morning they come out way before school starts to clean the street.”
The site has brought other benefits, too, Buchenholz pointed out. Unlike other blocks in East Harlem, 126th Street is now patrolled by security guards because of the safe-injection site, who provide extra security during school drop-off and pick-up times.
The school and the site have also held a series of events to help dispel parental and community anxiety about OnPoint.
OnPoint hosted a COVID-19 vaccine event for the school’s parents in January, incentivized with a $50 gift card for every person that received a dose, and a holistic health event in March for the ABC staff to help their separate teams get to know one another. The site also invited the ABC Parents Council to visit in March.
“When people see the harm reduction practices that surround the supervised drug use, it changes the opinion,” Rivera said.
Another objection to the site from the community is that it brings addicts from all over into the neighborhood, which at the moment, it does. Rivera is addressing this by spearheading a bill to authorize safe injection sites across the state. He says that if more are established, OnPoint will become less of a hub.
Buchenholz has joined OnPoint to help with outreach in other communities apprehensive to safe-injection sites, and recently with Philadelphia foundations and city officials in a meeting hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts about whether a program like OnPoint could be replicated there.
“Even though we are separate entities, we share the same goals of reducing harm in Harlem,” Beltre said.
Buchenholz told the story of a pregnant woman on their block, who was suffering from addiction. The woman later became involved with OnPoint’s harm reduction practices for drug abuse during pregnancy. “We were both thinking of the baby,” Buchenholz said. “We both want to provide treatment for her and her child, and we both have that treatment.”
As pick-up time rolls around, Wolfe and his neighbors are still playing music and chatting across the street. “The drugs have always been here in this neighborhood,” Wolfe said. “Now OnPoint is here taking care of the people I know.”
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