mobile support

As the Heights Struggles With Opioid Use, Needle Exchange Program Goes Homeless

Kirk Marshall, 32, gets help for opioid addiction from a mobile health vehicle near 181st Street in Washington Heights, June 18, 2019.
Kirk Marshall, 32, gets help for opioid addiction from a mobile health vehicle near 181st Street in Washington Heights, June 18, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A Washington Heights group that helps drug users is homeless — forced to operate out of a van as its efforts to move into the neighborhood’s bus terminal stall.

As the CORNER Project searches for a new home, area residents say they’ve seen an increase in drug use on local streets, while the nonprofit’s clients say they’re grateful for the help.

On a sidewalk on St. Nicholas Avenue, two men stood near a CORNER Project mobile center and ticked off the ways the group serves them.

Clean syringes are the main thing, said Kirk Marshall, 32, who has used heroin since prescribed painkillers first got him hooked on opioids in 2005.

The van’s fentanyl test kits are also key, he said, to make sure his heroin isn’t deadly.

“They’re welcoming. If you want to get clean, they’ll help you get into detox,” said Marshall, who started using painkillers after a weightlifting injury.

Next to him, a man who gave his name as “Frenchy” piped up: “Help with housing.”

“They get you set up with a doctor,” Marshall added.

Frenchy, who is homeless, says he’d “starve a lot of days” without the CORNER Project van.

“Oh, yeah, they provide food in the mornings, too,” Marshall said.

On the Move

The CORNER Project has been operating without a permanent home since losing the lease on its previous center nine months ago.

That means in a neighborhood that consistently has some of the highest rates of opioid-related overdoses in New York, health data shows, there is no permanent place where drug users can get so-called harm reduction services. So there’s no place where they can safely and privately use drugs indoors, something CORNER allowed in the bathrooms of its previous space on West 181st Street.

Kailin See, director of programs at CORNER, told THE CITY that the group has looked at 34 potential spaces for a new home in the area, including a storefront at the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal on West 179th Street.

The plan to move there has support from state Sen. Robert Jackson, Assemblymember Al Taylor, Councilmember Mark Levine and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who teamed up to write a letter on behalf of the group.

The local community board is on board, too, voting for a resolution backing the CORNER Project’s bus terminal plan. The board sent the resolution to the Port Authority earlier this month.

The group told the board the NYPD and transit officials had been supportive, board minutes show. All that remained was the sign-off from the Port Authority, which maintains the bridge, and a private company that manages the $17,000-per-month space, they said.

Since then, the effort appears to have stalled.

See would not discuss the potential deal at the terminal. The Port Authority referred all questions about the space to Douglas Slayton, the developer who handles leases at the building. He could not be reached for comment by phone or email.

An agent who handles retail leases at the bus terminal said he could not answer questions about the CORNER Project application.

Notably mum, as well, is the area’s City Council representative, Ydanis Rodriguez. He had not given his support to the CORNER Project’s potential move to the bus terminal, the board record shows, and did not respond to a request for comment from THE CITY.

In the past, Rodriguez had been involved with pushing for more local tenants in the terminal, and was a big booster of the decade-long bus terminal renovation.

Residents See Cause for Concern

Meanwhile, residents said they’ve noticed a sharp increase in public drug use in recent months.

No reliable statistics about nonfatal drug activity or drug use were available. But figures from the city Health Department on drug-related overdoses through 2017 show Washington Heights has 22.2 overdose deaths for every 100,000 residents — the third-highest rate in Manhattan.

The Corner Project had made moves to secure space at the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal.
The Corner Project had made moves to secure space at the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

And Health Department data show overdose deaths steadily climbing citywide — rising from 8.2 to 21.2 deaths per 100,000 residents between 2010 and 2017.

Washington Heights residents described seeing people injecting heroin in subway station entrances, playground bathrooms and public parks. They also told of finding used needles left on the street.

Yulun Wang said he was with his 5-year-old son inside the A train station at 181st Street last week when he observed two men injecting heroin in the middle of the downtown platform. His wife, Elyssa East, said she witnessed a similar scene at the 181st Street 1 train station in the winter.

Wang, who grew up in Washington Heights in the 1970s and has lived there as an adult since 1993, said he’s seen drug activity in the neighborhood before, but never at this level.

“All the sudden, within the last six months to a year, it’s really started to feel like it’s turned,” he said.

East agreed: “I think there’s a public health crisis here.”

‘People Have a Place to Go’

That doesn’t surprise Ken Robinson, executive director of Research for a Safer New York, a coalition formed by syringe exchange groups to lobby for the legal creation and study of five overdose prevention centers, also known as safe injection sites, in New York State.

He said studies of safe injection sites in Europe, Australia and Canada show those kind of facilities reduce overdose deaths and improve the quality of life locally.

“It doesn’t increase or decrease crime, but it does cut down on — virtually eliminates in the area — public injections,” he said. “People have a place to go.”

An opioid overdose rescue kit on the ground across the street from the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal, on June 18, 2019.
An opioid overdose rescue kit on the ground across the street from the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal, on June 18, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Without one, drugs users are more likely to end up on the street where they may affect businesses and residents, he said.

For Frenchy, the homeless man who gets help from CORNER Project’s mobile van, the group’s old storefront space was a safe place to use where “we weren’t looked at like a junkie.”

“You were looked at like someone who had a problem. They were there to help,” he said.

It was also rare spot for rest where he could get socks, hot coffee and a chance to use a phone.

“That place was home,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced more than a year ago that the city would open four of those five safe injection centers, and that the CORNER Project would be one of them. But since then, nothing has happened.

The state’s Department of Health hasn’t moved on it, and no bill or budget item was included in this year’s legislative session to support the idea, Robinson said.

“It’s a hot potato. It’s controversial. It’s illegal,” said Robinson.

Safe injection sites may violate federal law. A safe injection site in Philadelphia is currently being challenged by the Justice Department.

Good Neighbor Policy

Until the CORNER Project can reopen permanently, the group is relying on its mobile units, operated in partnership with New York Harm Reduction Educators, another nonprofit.

Marshall said the staff works hard to be good neighbors, sweeping three or four times a day in front of the van, keeping strict rules about not using drugs near the vehicle and cleaning up needles all over Washington Heights.

“If you let them know a spot that’s really messy, they’ll send out a Hazmat person and get ’em all up,” he said.

Highbridge Park is particularly bad, he said, with “needles everywhere on the ground.”

With the summer months ahead, East worries about what will happen with those needles when school lets out.

“All it takes is one second for a little kid to see a discarded needle on the street and pick it up and try to play doctor with it,” she said.

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.