Do Overdose Prevention Centers Really Save Lives?
Many cities and states have proposed opening overdose protection centers, only to be thwarted by naysayers, including the Federal Government. Not so New York, which not only refused to take No for an answer, but opened two basically across town from each other.
How have they done?
New York’s Overdose Prevention Centers
When OnPoint NYC opened the first two sanctioned overdose prevention centers (OPCs) in the United States back in November 2021, nobody expected much. Nobody, that is, but OnPoint Executive Director Sam Rivera and his staff. Rivera, who made his bones during the ‘80s AIDS Crisis fights, knew firsthand what a little unorthodox compassion can do for a person. He also knew how such unorthodoxy could impact a community. Consequently when OnPoint opened-up OTCs in East Harlem and Washington Heights, he was well-prepared to see change happen in Upper Manhattan.
And boy, did change come. Rivera claims that OnPoint’s safe consumption sites have been used over 70,000 times. That doesn’t mean 70,000 drug users came through their doors. But it does mean 70,000 times that regular folk didn’t have to contend with addicts getting high and dying right before their eyes. That leads to cleaner and safer streets and subways, and spares all the danger of drugs being used in apartment vestibules or restaurant bathrooms.
We’re not exaggerating about the dying either. In fact, in a New York Times piece advocating for more robust treatment options, Beautiful Boy author David Sheff says OnPoint staff reversed at least 700 overdoses just over the last year. Sheff should know too. See, not only did the writer poignantly chronicle his son’s addiction (and provide much of the story for the same-named Amazon Studios film), but his Beautiful Boy Fund is devoted to supporting quality, evidence-based treatment for substance-use disorders, as well as research that furthers the field of addiction medicine.
OnPoint vs WIRED
WIRED: When you’re talking to people who still say that overdose prevention centers are enabling drug use, how do you respond?
SAM RIVERA: I probably have five different responses. The biggest one for me lately is talking about why these folks are going to use. The overdose prevention centers have almost 3,100 registered participants. We’re working with folks who are already currently using. We’re doing everything possible to keep them alive. Once they say to us, at any point, that they want to stop, we respond immediately. We go into action right away, so we are in no way enabling.
On an average day, how many people come to OnPoint?
If we’re talking specifically about the OPC, sometimes a few hundred. It varies. But if we’re talking about the whole organization, we see many, many more people than that.
When people come to OnPoint, what services are they usually seeking?
When people walk into the space, right away, most people who are here to visit go, “Wait a minute, where’s the drug use?” The door opens, and they see people having coffee, having a meal, watching a movie. We serve up to five meals a day.
What happens after intake?
They enter the room, and they use. Again, this is one program in an array of many. We have case management, mental health services, low-threshold medical services, hepatitis testing and treatment, HIV testing and treatment. We’re opening a pharmacy, and that will not only service our people but all the members of the community. We have a holistic program that provides acupuncture, acupressure, some bodywork, and sound therapy, and that’s also open to the whole community. We’re opening a barber shop and salon free of charge.
We have a respite room now, that allows people to get eight hours of sleep—something many of them haven’t had in years. So if someone comes in and wants to use the restroom or take a shower, they’ll give us their clothes and we’ll wash them. We’ll give them nice, fresh socks. They can take a nice nap. These are the kinds of humanizing experiences that are going to impact people. What I know from my 31 years of work is that people stop using when they start to believe in themselves or feel better about themselves. So we love on them. If it’s someone’s birthday, the staff will give them cake, and sing. You’ll see big tough men—folks who look mean—cry like children, because people are singing for them. The drug use is the least interesting thing that happens in our world.
Optimism and Overdose Prevention Centers
When Knibbs asked whether he was “optimistic that the overdose crisis will get better,” Rivera expressed confidence, as well as concern. To wit:
“I do have confidence that we’ll get there. My concern—we couldn’t get any money to address HIV… until Ryan White contracted [the disease. Then,] all of a sudden, we had money put into research and care.”
“I don’t want the world of harm reduction to have to wait for our Ryan White.”
Neither does TIME Magazine, which just named Rivera one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
In his statement concerning the TIME100 listing, Rivera thanked the staff that rises with him each day and steps up to “save lives and be a support system for people who are too often excluded from care and community“.
How’s that for a committed and caring optimist?
Healing Properties applauds OnPoint’s compassion and diligence. We also hope their efforts help others see the value in overdose protection centers. Addicts can’t find recovery if they are dead, and if it takes a little extra kindness and patience to get them there, well… In other words, we don’t see the harm in harm reduction.
What do you think? For or against overdose prevention centers? Go ahead and leave a comment below. In the meantime, if you’re looking for help, please give us a ring. We’ve been doing this sobriety thing since 2002; we’d be honored to help you too. Really.