East Harlem safe injection site saving lives, but neighbors feel frustrated and unsafe

On 126th Street in East Harlem, small clumps of people gather outside one of the nation’s first safe injection sites.

A police squad car is parked at the corner and volunteers for the nonprofit running the site, walk the street picking up syringes left on the ground.

New York allows two safe injection sites to operate in the city. The goal of these facilities is to allow people to use drugs with supervision in order to prevent overdose deaths.

However, across the street from this safe injection site is an early childhood development center and some residents in the area are frustrated.

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"I feel like a prisoner in my own home, I can’t leave my house because I’m scared," Yvette said tearfully.

Yvette wants to keep her identity hidden, because she’s afraid of retaliation.

She has lived in the East Harlem neighborhood for around 7 years, but says once the overdose prevention center opened at the end of 2021 she saw a dramatic shift.

"I see them dealing right in front of my face, like I'm walking by you see the dealer, passing the goods, they're giving them the money," Yvette explained. "These needles are being left in the street. In my neighborhood, they're all over."

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Yvette says that it got to the point where she can’t have her grandson visit her anymore since he witnessed someone using drugs on the sidewalk.

"When you're walking by and he sees this and he's questioning me, what is this? What are they doing? Is he sick? Is he a doctor? Why is he doing that? How do I explain this to an eight year old child? It scared him to see that," Yvette said. "So I had to bring him to my daughter because he had nightmares about it, worried about grandma more than anything. He has to worry about grandma being alone."

Right now these safe injection sites are sanctioned by the city, but technically illegal on the state and federal level. A federal law sometimes referred to as the "crack house statute" makes it illegal to operate, own or rent a location for the purpose of using illegal substances. 

The city cannot fund these sites directly, but they do provide things like syringes and Narcan to the nonprofit OnPoint which runs these sites.

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According to OnPoint, over 2,300 people have visited their injection facilities over 55,000 times since they opened a little over a year ago. They say these sites though have averted over 700 overdoses.

"The goal is to reduce overdose deaths by 15% by 2025," City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan. "We must have more overdose prevention centers in order to reach that goal."

New York has seen a record number of overdose deaths, which is why Mayor Eric Adams is proposing to have a total of 5 safe injection sites up and running by 2025, operating 24/7.

"When you go to OnPoint you will see a range of social support, mental health care, medication, assisted treatment, primary care, basic needs, like food and clothing and laundry," Commissioner Vasan said.

Sam Rivera, the Executive Director of OnPoint NYC said that they are working to address concerns of residents in these neighborhoods.

"In the last year alone, our team has intervened in 750 overdoses, cleaned up over 1.4 million units of drug paraphernalia from community streets and parks, and have provided our participants with critical health care and social services that are so often unavailable when they seek care elsewhere," Rivera said. "We will continue to partner with the surrounding community to address any concerns while working towards what should be our collective goal of saving innocent lives."

However, Eva Chan with the Greater Harlem Coalition says she is frustrated that this injection site has to be located in an area that is already saturated with homeless shelters and drug treatment programs.

"If the government is to set up these sites, they need to be spread around," Chan said. "Harlem is only used as a Containment Zone because most people are people of color. So that form of structural racism must stop."

Governor Kathy Hochul has so far been supportive of many of the city’s mental health initiatives, but hasn’t said yet where she stands on a bill to legalize overdose prevention centers.

Hochul’s office when asked on Friday about these sites said in a statement, "We commend Mayor Adams for this bold agenda to support mental health and reduce overdoses, which complements the Governor's $1 billion mental health plan and actions to combat the opioid epidemic and get New Yorkers the help they need. We look forward to continuing to work with the City on these critical priorities."