Behind The Scenes At A Local Needle Exchange (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Behind the Scenes at a Local Needle Exchange

MS. JENNA MILLER

13:07:22
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

13:07:31
Do you have any of those black boxes? I would love to see one.

MILLER

13:07:33
Yes, do you want to go see them?

SHEIR

13:07:34
Yes.

MILLER

13:07:34
Okay.

SHEIR

13:07:35
But clearly in this particular in this instance...

MILLER

13:07:37
This is our supply room closet.

SHEIR

13:07:39
...we're not talking just any box.

MILLER

13:07:42
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.

SHEIR

13:07:49
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.

MILLER

13:08:00
We do 6,000 syringes in and out per month.

SHEIR

13:08:03
Both at their facility in Northeast D.C. and in the van they drive around town each night, exchanging used needles for clean ones.

MILLER

13:08:10
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.

SHEIR

13:08:25
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.

MILLER

13:08:35
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.

SHEIR

13:08:47
Not only that, but there's no stereotypical reason participants come for clean needles. Now, as you probably guess...

MILLER

13:08:53
People use them to inject heroin, to inject cocaine and meth.

SHEIR

13:08:56
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.

MILLER

13:09:11
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.

SHEIR

13:09:19
And there's another reason, too, one you might not necessarily expect.

SHEIR

13:09:24
So on what name would you feel comfortable?

TEOLA

13:09:27
Teola.

SHEIR

13:09:28
Teola, how do you spell that?

TEOLA

13:09:29
T-E-O-L-A.

SHEIR

13:09:31
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.

TEOLA

13:09:42
I take muscular injections for hormone therapy. I've been doing this for like the last four years.

SHEIR

13:09:48
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.

TEOLA

13:09:57
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.

SHEIR

13:10:12
The problem, she says, is many of her friends who are also doing body modifications don't bother with needle exchange.

TEOLA

13:10:19
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.

SHEIR

13:10:25
Others, she says, will buy hot hormones off the street.

TEOLA

13:10:28
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.

SHEIR

13:10:45
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

13:11:10
As we talk with them and they express, well, I want to do this for now, but I want to stop.

SHEIR

13:11:15
Gadson, by the way, is a client advocate at HIPS.

GADSON

13:11:17
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.

SHEIR

13:11:27
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.

GADSON

13:11:41
I became HIV infected through intravenous drug use. I've been infected 24 years. I stopped using 17 years ago.

SHEIR

13:11:47
How are you doing these days?

GADSON

13:11:49
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.

SHEIR

13:11:57
And Jenna Miller says he's probably right.

MILLER

13:12:00
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.

SHEIR

13:12:10
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.

MILLER

13:12:19
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?

SHEIR

13:12:27
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.

MILLER

13:12:41
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.

SHEIR

13:12:58
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.

SHEIR

13:13:14
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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