In the mid-1990s, I worked for Philadelphia’s needle exchange program, Prevention Point. Twenty-plus years later, I cherish the community that the needle exchange created — that odd and random assortment of people of all ages, races, economic strati and degrees of addiction.
The ties that bound us seemed so tenuous. Hundreds of people would line up at the sites — street corners in Kensington or Germantown known for open-air drug markets, sex work and gun violence. And we, the “helpers,” would arrive in a van to distribute supplies that would prevent the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C and other infectious diseases. I didn’t know then that I would be helped at least as much as I helped others.
Many of the exchangers (people who used the needle exchange) were extremely tense when they arrived at a site because they were jonesing and had been waiting for a clean needle. To an outsider, our safety may have seemed at risk though those of us who volunteered or worked at the needle exchange rarely gave it a second thought.
With our supplies packed inside our rickety, donated, 25-year-old RV, the mobile needle exchange would pull up to an already-assembled crowd — a line that stretched down the block. We’d jump out, quickly assemble our tables and materials, then immediately begin to serve the hundreds of people waiting on us. How did we keep order amidst this potential chaos?
We didn’t. The crowd was self-regulating. We would unpack our folding tables and lay out our supplies: red sharps buckets to contain dirty “works,” clean cookers, condoms, cotton balls, sterilization kits, pamphlets about safer drug use and where to get help.I haven’t been so grateful before or since to be surrounded by such a web of supportive and lovely human beings. A ballet would ensue. The line formed, each person picked up supplies, handed in their dirty needles, received an equal exchange of clean needles and departed. On occasion, someone would express an interest in receiving extra help, perhaps a visit with a doctor inside the van to sterilize a wound, or to ask for a drug treatment referral. Like working in a busy restaurant, each action I took had to be smooth to ensure an orderly system. When someone took an extra step, it would throw all of us off momentarily. We would be “in the weeds,” as waiters say.
One afternoon, the needle exchange van was late. When we finally arrived, the line was long and people in the crowd were anxious to get moving, to return to whatever warmth they could find.
As we began setting up the materials, we heard someone in line yell, “Put that away, man!” Glancing back at the line, I saw an exchanger brandishing a menacing Sig Sauer. Panicked, I ducked inside the van. My colleague, Jon Paul, gingerly approached the gun-waving exchanger, asking him to step out of line. The exchanger refused, brandishing the weapon boldly, demanding something — in retrospect, I can’t recall what.
The true measure of everyone’s safety that day did not lie in the words of the needle exchange employee, politely requesting him to stop. Our safety was firmly located in the community of people who used the needle exchange, who immediately jumped to our defense.
The line of people waiting wrapped around the out-of-control gun-toter, keeping him away from us, miraculously protecting us — the people who had just rudely arrived late. People in the line wrested him away from the group, and asked him to leave, reasoning with him that he did not want to jeopardize the service that we were providing, putting themselves in harm’s way so that we would not be. In the end, he left peacefully, shamed by the crowd and reminded that it was silly to jeopardize a meaningful service with illogical and dangerous behavior.
A few years later, I made the bittersweet decision to leave the needle exchange for another job. One of the last events I attended for Prevention Point was the “exchangers’ picnic,” an annual gathering at a local park to promote community, and give folks a chance to escape their hardscrabble life.
We played croquet, grilled burgers, ate potato salad — just like your family’s Fourth of July picnic. There, the folks who used the needle exchange presented me with a cheerful cake that said “Julie, good luck on your next job!” I cried as they presented it to me; I haven’t been so grateful before or since to be surrounded by such a web of supportive and lovely human beings. This was a group of people who were willing to protect me and my colleagues in a miraculous moment, and who always greeted me with words of kindness and cheer despite their circumstances.