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Needle Exchange for S.R.O.’s

Manhattan community Boards

At its April 1 meeting, Community Board 7 made a significant move to respond to a year of vociferous complaints about a city agency that houses homeless people with H.I.V./AIDS in single-room-occupancy hotels. In a unanimous vote, the board gave the green light to a local nonprofit, CitiWide Harm Reduction Coalition, to expand its syringe-exchange program into three of the most notorious Upper West Side S.R.O.’s, where many of the H.I.V.-positive residents are injection drug users.

The city agency in question is the H.I.V./AIDS Services Administration (HASA). An arm of the Human Resources Administration, it provides an array of welfare aid, including various forms of housing assistance, to approximately 31,000 lower-income H.I.V.-positive New Yorkers. HASA has come under increasing fire from the City Council, local AIDS advocates and NIMBY-crying neighbors over the last year for what H.R.A. commissioner Verna Eggleston has herself recognized to be a failed system for providing “emergency” housing placements into S.R.O. hotels for about 2,500 HASA clients.

The S.R.O.-housed clients are invariably the most indigent, and many of them suffer from severe mental illness or are addicted to drugs. But despite HASA’s expressed goal to move its clients into independent self-sufficiency, the agency does not have a system to provide adequate social services. Consequently, many clients’ health issues are not properly monitored, and problems within the hotels are common.

The concentration of HASA clients in the Upper West Side S.R.O.’s has increased dramatically since the post–Sept. 11 tourism drop-off, as landlords have scrambled to replace lost revenue with the average HASA payout of about $50 a night per bed. In turn, not only have long-time (read: low-paying) residents of these hotels been aggressively forced out, but the ones who remained have sometimes found their homes turned into havens for drug abuse and prostitution. Local residents have subsequently complained about a number of quality-of-life concerns surrounding two hotels in particular: the Royal York at 258 West 97th Street, and the Malibu on Broadway and 103rd.

CitiWide sought the board’s approval to run needle-exchange programs inside the Royal York and the Malibu, as well as Broadway Studios at 230 West 101st Street, in order to prove, in an application for a New York State–sponsored grant, that the group had solicited community input. By granting approval, the board was hoping to kill two birds with one stone: to provide better care for the HASA clients, and to temper some of the quality-of-life problems that stem from drug abuse.

Mary Sherman Parsons, who runs the Lotus Garden, a community garden adjacent to the Royal York, attended the meeting to support CitiWide’s efforts. Ms. Parsons has long complained of the waste-including syringes and crack vials-that has fallen from the hotel’s windows into her rooftop garden. When contacted by The Observer , Ms. Parsons said: “CitiWide Harm Reduction has helped pick up and destroy this dangerous trash, and has provided much-needed services to these ill residents. We in the Lotus Garden are grateful.”

Acknowledging that many still consider it backward logic to reduce the problems of drug addiction by providing drug addicts with the tools to inject, Board 7’s resolution pointed out that according to former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, needle-exchange programs not only do not increase drug use, but-as part of a comprehensive drug-treatment program-can actually reduce the problem. The board also pointed to a 2002 New York State Department of Health report, which found that the infection rates of injection drug users in New York have dropped over 50 percent since the state began allowing syringe sales and exchanges in 1992.

When contacted by The Observer , Board 7’s health and human-services committee co-chair David Harris reported that “there was zero opposition” to the syringe exchange when the motion was in committee hearings.

“It was, I think, telling that there was support from the local residents who are concerned about what’s going on in the S.R.O.’s,” he said, referring to a group of people who are often torn between personal considerations and empathy for the struggles of the HASA clients who now inhabit their backyards.

“This is a step forward for our community-an opportunity to bring services to our neighbors who need our support. It’s not sufficient, but it’s progress, and it should save lives,” said Mr. Harris.

-Benjamin Ryan

April 9: Board 6, New York University Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, Classroom B, 7 p.m., 212-319-3750.

April 10: Board 5, Fashion Institute of Technology, 227 West 27th Street, Building A, eighth floor,

6 p.m., 212-465-0907.

April 15: Board 11, P.S. 197, 2230 Fifth Avenue, auditorium, 6:30 p.m., 212-831-8929; Board 1: I.S. 89, 201 Warren Street, auditorium, 6 p.m., 212-442-5050.

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