Alliance for Living to launch mobile syringe exchange service
New London — A combination of state and private money has allowed local nonprofit Alliance for Living to revamp its syringe exchange space and purchase a van for mobile service.
The nonprofit, which helps those affected by HIV/AIDS in New London County, launched its syringe exchange program in the fall of 2016. Initially open only on Friday afternoons, it now operates out of the rear of its 154 Broad St. headquarters Monday through Friday.
Overseen by Inez Richards, New London’s program accepts dirty needles, distributes clean needles and overdose-reversing naloxone kits, and connects people with detoxification, treatment, housing and other services they may need. Visitors just need to provide their initials and answer a few questions to use the free service.
Robert Heimer, a Yale University professor who directs the Emerging Infections Program, said syringe exchanges can dramatically reduce the number of new HIV cases attributable to drug use.
When New Haven launched one in 1990, for example, 70 percent of HIV cases in the city were attributable to drug use. Today that number is less than 10 percent, he said.
“But it’s not just get your needles and get out,” said Richards, who has worked at the exchange since July.
In recovery after 45 years of drug abuse, Richards encourages those who visit to grab some coffee or a honey bun. Sometimes people recognize the track marks on her arms and ask what to do about abscesses on theirs. Other times people recognize her because they were at York Correctional Institution at the same time.
Often, she becomes a confidant for those who visit.
Richards said she has seen people drop out of the exchange because they sought treatment and stopped using. She has seen friends of friends of friends swing by. And she has heard people say they don’t reuse or share needles as much anymore.
“When I was in active addiction, I didn’t know about exchanges,” she said. “I used whatever I found. I didn’t know that I could protect myself.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said those who use syringe exchange programs also are more likely to reduce or stop injecting and are five times more likely to enter treatment.
Richards said she doesn’t push recovery on anyone — she just wants people to feel comfortable and see her as an example of what they can be.
“After 45 years of use and 17 years of prison, I didn’t know anything else,” she said. “I didn’t want anything else because I didn’t think I deserved anything else.”
“Someone else had to love me so I could love myself,” Richards said. “Someone had to show me I could do this. It’s about giving a person the chance to bring out the best in themselves.”
‘Nobody chooses this disease’
Kelly Thompson, president and CEO of Alliance for Living, began pursuing a needle exchange shortly after she joined the nonprofit in 2011.
“Where people get hung up is this idea of choice, that people can choose to stop,” Thompson said. “If you have the biology of this disease ... your brain becomes hijacked and that choice is taken away from you.”
Thompson said the exchange has seen a boom in clients, likely because of referrals from the city’s two part-time recovery navigators, who help New London County residents get into treatment or learn about safer ways to use.
For people who are ready, the navigators advocate medication-assisted treatment, or the practice of combining therapy with medications that reduce withdrawal symptoms. For those who aren’t, they suggest the syringe exchange.
To get clean needles from the state, Alliance for Living shares data on how many people it serves and their demographics, to the extent people are willing to share the latter.
Forty-seven clients visited the exchange 109 times from January through September, Thompson said. Forty-four clients have visited 102 times since Oct. 1. Alliance has distributed 3,040 needles so far this year and accepted 3,055 used ones — needles that don’t end up on the ground, she said.
This year, the program expanded its hours and, responding to a concern of people who bring in needles, began issuing cards so police don’t charge them with possession of drug paraphernalia.
Soon the nonprofit will use 45,000 from the same agency to purchase a van that primarily will take clean needles to clients and certain sites throughout the county — important because some people can’t get to the Broad Street site or don’t want to be seen there.
A three-year, $45,878 grant from the state Department of Public Health is helping to pay personnel, Thompson said.
“I’m glad we’re in a state that supports what we’re doing,” Thompson said. “Nobody chooses this disease.”
“These are our family members and friends,” she said. “We need to treat them with compassion and stop the judgment. That’s often what’s preventing them from getting help in the first place.”