June Leffler Published

City Hall Could Decide Fate Of Syringe Services in Charleston

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A grassroots harm reduction program in Charleston connects those with substance use disorder to a host of services: food, menstrual products, HIV testing and medical referrals. It also hands out sterile syringes, with the goal of curbing blood-borne illnesses. But that particular service has come under fire from the City of Charleston. Elected officials cite concerns over needle litter and potential pricks. A proposed ordinance that will be taken up Monday could limit syringe programs in the city.

Charleston’s public safety committee advanced the ordinance to the full city council with a 5-2 vote. The council will take up the ordinance Monday at 7PM. In a statement to WVPB, Mayor Amy Goodwin did not indicate how she would vote.

Health reporter June Leffler spoke with Joe Solomon of Solutions Oriented Addition Response ahead of a health fair this Saturday.

Leffler: SOAR is having an event this Saturday, can you tell me what services are provided and what is the general vibe of your event?

Solomon: SOAR’s next big event is this coming Saturday and it will mark a year of SOAR either going out in the community or setting up relatively large health fairs. I mean, that’s what it has evolved from, from driving around meeting people where they are to connecting with so many people that we had to ask people to meet all together in a social distance kind of way when the pandemic struck. And so now we’re meeting in the sanctuary of a church, well a church parking lot. And it’s kind of like a bazaar of mercy and compassion. And everyone is given a smile, and asked how they are, and a genuine kind of love and warmth. As you come and enter. You can of course, get a mask if you don’t have one, or if you need more hand sanitizers, period products, and so on. And as you go down the line, there’s a lot of snacks, lots of water bottles that we give out too. And then as you go, you have options to get HIV testing and referral to care. And as you keep going, there’s someone that says, “Hey, if you’ve got syringe returns, we’re here to take them.” And we just collected over 100 pounds of syringe returns over the last, I don’t know how long actually it’s been since we did our last drop, but a truck just picked up over 100 pounds yesterday. We also give out really sturdy containers at that same table. And then you keep going and there’s a table with recovery coaches, and they can help you with all kinds of things. Whether you’re ready for abstinence based treatment, or like a 12 step program, or a medication assisted treatment program. Or where you need help troubleshooting things like getting ID or Medicaid or SNAP, they’re there to help. And then down the line you go and you can get as much Naloxone as you need. This is the largest Naloxone hub in the state. So we give out about 1000 doses every other Saturday. And we hear about 30 to 40 overdose reversals every two weeks. So 30 to 40 people that are still with us, thanks to this program and the people that are saving those lives with this Naloxone. And the last stop on the way here is our syringe service table and our other sterile equipment that we have available. And this is our station where we can help prevent the spread of HIV and Hep C, which have run rampant through our community these past couple years.

Leffler: Joe, you said there are a ton of services that are at your events. But the one that is being called into question by the city is your syringe services. The City of Charleston is working towards an ordinance that would regulate operations like yours that hand out syringes. The public safety committee passed language that would require organizations like yours to have a license and abide by a one to one exchange. If this becomes city ordinance, what would happen to SOAR?

Solomon: Well, we should really be asking what would happen to our people. Kanawha County now leads the state in overdoses. We’ve lost someone every three days for the past five years, just in this county. Our valley is also home to the nation’s most concerning HIV outbreak. According to the CDC, both of these things should be reckoning moments to race forward as a city. And what we see in City Hall is a chance for us to race backwards. So the risk of these stigma driven worst practices is that we have to turn people away.

Leffler: So on Monday night, the city council will take up this proposed ordinance. Will you be reaching out to council members? Just what will you be doing before Monday?

Solomon: Well, we’ll be busy. I think the city council has unfortunately a few members that give the impression that harm reduction is “us versus them.” And harm reduction is about everybody. It’s about protecting everybody. The concerns of council largely have to do with syringe litter. If you’re a parent and you find a syringe in a sandbox, that’s scary stuff. And we care about that stuff too. It’s why we’re the largest distributor of disposable containers and why we collect so many syringes. This bill that the city council has proposed does nothing for litter and does nothing for the HIV crisis or the overdose crisis of our city. SOAR over the next few days is going to be working with city council members to float an alternative ordinance that will actually help everybody, that will help syringe litter and help us get a handle on the HIV crisis. We’ve taken a draft written by the American Medical Association and we’ve added sections that address needle litter. For example, it invites the city to set up 10 to 15 syringe disposal boxes across the city over the next year.