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A Day In The Life Of D.C.'s Needle Exchangers

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HIPS syringe exchange specialist Maurice Abbey-Bey loads up bags full of clean needles and other supplies to distribute to heroin users in D.C. Abbey-Bey was a long-time heroin user before getting clean and volunteering at HIPS.
Lauren Ober/WAMU
HIPS syringe exchange specialist Maurice Abbey-Bey loads up bags full of clean needles and other supplies to distribute to heroin users in D.C. Abbey-Bey was a long-time heroin user before getting clean and volunteering at HIPS.

On a frigid November morning, Maurice Abbey-Bey is at the HIPS office in Northeast D.C. filling up paper bags of supplies. He loads up syringes, needles, tourniquets, bandages and cookers, which are used to cook heroin in. Folks who do harm reduction work like this are trying to get IV drug users to stop using dirty spoons and use the cookers instead.

“You use that spoon over and over and over, you can catch hepatitis and all types of other diseases,” he says.

Abbey-Bey is a secondary syringe exchanger with HIPS, a local nonprofit that provides clean needles and other supplies to injection drug users in D.C. He’s getting ready to go out and deliver the packages.

One of those packages is for a regular HIPS client named Denise. About once a week she gets a resupply. But in order to get more needles, she has to give back the ones she’s already used. It’s an equal exchange — 50 old needles for 50 new ones.

Today Denise is hanging with Loretta, another HIPS client. She requested 50 bluehead needles, which can be used anywhere on the body. But HIPS offers a number of needles, Abbey-Bey says, including those for use in the neck and groin, where some users like to shoot into their femoral vein.

Abbey-Bey tops off Loretta’s bag with alcohol pads, antibiotic cream, hand wipes and vitamins, which are a huge hit among the clients. He also includes some small plastic vials of sterile water used to cook the heroin.

“You have people using rain water, creek water. There’s bacteria in there that they’re infecting themselves with. I’ve seen it,” he says. “Things becomes real desperate when they have a drug habit.”

Exchanges in short supply

Abbey-Bey knows something about this. He was addicted to heroin from the time he was 12 until he got clean around age 45.

Once the bags are packed, it’s time to make deliveries. Abbey-Bey and his wife Charmaine Sauls climb into their truck and head to the first stop.

The couple has been together for 16 years and they get each other. Both had heroin habits that landed them in jail. And both recovered. Now they give back by serving as secondary exchangers. They say it’s their therapy.

There are only two needle exchange programs in the District and their operation is tenuous. Since the city’s budget has to be approved by Congress, and because no federal dollars are allowed to go to needle exchange, the HIPS program is always at risk.

But clearly it’s needed. Last year, they exchanged more than 200,000 needles for hundreds of clients. They also give out condoms and nutritional supplements.

The truck pulls up to a brick rowhouse in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood. Loretta greets Abbey-Bey at the door.

Her house is full of stray cats, but it’s tidy. She walks Abbey-Bey into her cramped dining room. There’s a Ziploc bag full of spent needles on the table. Loretta dumps the used “works,” as they're called, into a red biohazard bin. Then Abbey-Bey gives her fresh supplies, including 50 needles. Those should last her about a week.

“I can always call when I’m getting short or something and they'll make sure I have something,” she says.

After Loretta’s, Abbey-Bey and Sauls hit a few more individual stops. Then they head over to Minnesota Avenue and Clay Place NE and park outside a seafood joint. Here, users come to exchange their works from the back of their truck.

One of those users is a man named Ty, who’s hunched over a walker and shivering from the cold. For him, the needle exchange is a matter of public health.

“People can hurt themselves using other people’s needles. They can hurt themselves be using old needles,” he says. “You know, it’s not about using old needles if you have somebody like these people to help you. And that’s what it’s about. That’s important to me.”

Music: "The Needle and the Damage Done" by Vitamin Piano from The Piano Tribute to Neil Young

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