MS. JENNA MILLER
We have little awesome black boxes that you can put your needles in. They fit into your purse or your bag, it's totally discreet and no one would ever know its biohazard bin.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Do you have any of those black boxes? I would love to see one.
Yes, do you want to go see them?
But clearly in this particular in this instance...
This is our supply room closet.
...we're not talking just any box.
This an example of the sharps container I was telling you about. You can open up unclasp the top of it and fits about 20 used needles.
Miller is accustomed to throwing around words like sharps, needles and biohazard. She coordinates the Needle Exchange Program at Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive or HIPS.
We do 6,000 syringes in and out per month.
Both at their facility in Northeast D.C. and in the van they drive around town each night, exchanging used needles for clean ones.
If you look at a picture of a needle after the first time it's been used, it gets a little tiny bit droopy. After the sixth time, it's practically at a 45 degree angle. Using that to inject in your skin can really damage your body and so we want people to have new needles for every time they shoot.
And, yes, given the non-profit's name, Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, many of these needle users are indeed prostitutes. But Miller says needle exchange clients are from all walks of life.
There are young people, old people, black people, white people, trans-people, people who work for the government, people who have no home. There is no stereotypical needle exchange participant.
Not only that, but there's no stereotypical reason participants come for clean needles. Now, as you probably guess...
People use them to inject heroin, to inject cocaine and meth.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimates injection drug use has led to more a third of the nation's AIDS cases. And the District of Columbia is, at this point, the HIV-AIDS capital with three percent of all residents infected.
But there's a whole range of reasons people would want new needles. People who are having trouble with health insurance, but have diabetes. People who are injecting steroids, people using club drugs.
And there's another reason, too, one you might not necessarily expect.
So on what name would you feel comfortable?
Teola, how do you spell that?
Teola and I meet in one of the private needle exchange rooms at HIPS. She's wearing false eyelashes and a tube top. Her medal hoop earrings jingling and jangling as they brush against her bare shoulders.
I take muscular injections for hormone therapy. I've been doing this for like the last four years.
See, Teola is transgender so she takes hormones to modify her body. Other people in the transgender community often use needles to inject silicone, too.
In the beginning, when my doctor would prescribe me the prescription, I would have problems with getting the syringes or I wouldn't have the money for the syringes, you know, about me being on a limited income. Then the Needle Exchange came through and I didn't have to worry about that no more.
The problem, she says, is many of her friends who are also doing body modifications don't bother with needle exchange.
They would be so pressed to get this hormone therapy up in them, that if there's only one needle, two or three of them would share the needle.
Others, she says, will buy hot hormones off the street.
Which means that they won't go to the doctor because they don't have the right insurance and all that. But they'll buy it off somebody. Somebody might give them a needle, but there might be two girls paying for the hormones together and they will share needles like that. Because see, people think that if you're not using intravenous drugs, needles are not dangerous.
But Teola says she knows better because when HIPS does needle exchange, it doesn't just hand out sterile needles. It gives advice on proper usage. It cautions about the risk of sharing. And for people who are using needles for addictive drugs, it tries to help them kick the habit. Because after all, one of the criticisms you'll hear about needle exchange is it incentivizes drug use. But Ed Gadson disagrees.
MR. ED GADSON
As we talk with them and they express, well, I want to do this for now, but I want to stop.
Gadson, by the way, is a client advocate at HIPS.
And we try to get them to where they want to be, their ultimate goal. And a lot of their ultimate goals is, I want to stop, but in the meantime, I will do this to make it safer for me.
Each month, HIPS refers about three people to treatment. That's out of the 80 or 90 people who do needle exchange total. But Gadson feels there's hope for the IV drug users who participate because, well, he used to be one.
I became HIV infected through intravenous drug use. I've been infected 24 years. I stopped using 17 years ago.
How are you doing these days?
I'm doing great, but actually I really wish they would've had a needle exchange back 24 years ago. I don't think our numbers would've been quite as high.
And Jenna Miller says he's probably right.
The D.C. Health Department says it only takes five percent of the needles people use to be new to reduce the HIV infection rate in the city. That's real people's lives and real people's health.
Real people who have been feeling even more of a need for clean syringes since D.C.'s main needle exchange program, Prevention Works, shut its doors in February.
We've been getting a lot of calls of someone saying, I've been reusing my needles for a month. I need new needles. I want new needles. How do I meet up with you?
In fact, Miller says her 80 to 90 monthly clients used to be more like 50 before Prevention Works closed. So the entire HIPS staff is working even harder to accommodate the overflow. But she's confident they're making a difference.
I think it's such a powerful thing for someone to have access to what they want to keep themselves safer. You know, that's a public health issue but it's a human dignity issue. No one should have to live with HIV or Hepatitis C because we don't think people deserve access to very cheap, very usable resources.
And now that Congress has dropped its effort to ban local funding for needle exchanges in D.C. -- for the moment at least -- she hopes HIPS will be able to keep providing those cheap usable resources to anyone who needs them for a long time to come.
For more on Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, including its needle exchange, its 24-hour hotline and its other free services, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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