Last week, the city opened the nation’s first supervised injection site for drug users to reduce overdoses. The sites, called Overdose Prevention Centers (OPCs) by the city, are causing controversy due to their locations encouraging drug use.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention released data last month indicating that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during the 12-month period ending in April 2021. That’s a nearly 30% increase nationwide and a 20% increase in New York State compared to the same period last year.
OPCs, also referred to as supervised consumption sites or facilities, are considered safe places where people who use drugs can receive medical care and be connected to treatment and social services. Officials say the centers are a benefit to their surrounding communities, reducing public drug use and syringe litter.
The OPCs are located in East Harlem, on East 126th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, and Washington Heights, on West 180th Street off Amsterdam Avenue.
“New York City has led the nation’s battle against COVID-19, and the fight to keep our community safe doesn’t stop there. After exhaustive study, we know the right path forward to protect the most vulnerable people in our city. And we will not hesitate to take it,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Overdose Prevention Centers are a safe and effective way to address the opioid crisis. I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible.”
In New York City during 2020, more than 2,000 individuals died of a drug overdose, the highest number since reporting began in 2000.
Overdose deaths were from synthetic opioids, cocaine and methamphetamine. Black New Yorkers had the highest rate of overdose death (38.2 per 100,000 residents), and the largest absolute increase in rate from 2019 to 2020.
“The national overdose epidemic is a five-alarm fire in public health, and we have to tackle this crisis concurrently with our COVID fight,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Dave A. Chokshi. “Giving people a safe, supportive space will save lives and bring people in from the streets, improving life for everyone involved. Overdose prevention centers are a key part of broader harm reduction.”
Last Saturday, de Blasio announced that after being open for less than a week, the OPCs have reversed nine overdoses. City Health Department officials say the centers could save up to 130 lives annually.
“Overdose Prevention Centers can turn the tide in the fight against the opioid crisis, and New York City is ready to lead the way,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Melanie Hartzog. “We have lost too much to rely on the same playbook.
It’s time to take bold action to help our most vulnerable neighbors and the communities they call home.”
While OPCs might sound like the answer to combat drug overdose, however, a sizable number of community leaders and groups are saying, “Not in my backyard.” Community members have voiced their concern over the proximity of centers.
In East Harlem, the OPC is located directly across the street from the Echo Park Children and Family Center, which houses a daycare.
Harlem Assemblywoman Inez Dickens said she objects to the injection site and says Harlem is being oversaturated with drug clinics. She said other neighborhoods would not accept an injection site right outside their doorstep.
“Our community has been forced to accept more than our share of such clinics over decades because most other neighboring communities refused to allow such needed programs in their areas and put up funding to cover legal fees as is being done today on the Upper West Side,” Dickens said. “OASAS then just puts these clinics in Harlem under the false premise that our residents are in badly need whereas in truth, many patients come from other boroughs.”
The Greater Harlem Coalition (GHC), which represents 120 Harlem organizations, said placing the center in East Harlem is a continuation of the practice of placing “socially burdensome” city services in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Data GHC obtained says 20% of the city’s drug treatment facilities are located in East and Central Harlem.
“This concentration has drawn drug dealers to the district, creating a range of quality-of-life issues,” GHC said. “Adding a supervised injection site in Harlem, and not other districts, will only exacerbate the problem. Harlem residents, our children and our minority-owned small businesses will again bear the costs that come with excessive concentration of these programs.”
GHC says it supports small scale harm reduction programs located throughout the city in all neighborhoods; however it objects to putting the facilities in Harlem.
Community Board 11 Chair Nilsa Orman said she was “surprised and disappointed” to learn that the city opened a safe injection facility in the district without consulting the board. A resolution passed in March by the community board called for a moratorium on the establishment of any drug treatment facilities in the community requiring consultation with the board for any addition or expansion.
“As the municipal agency representing the community of East Harlem, it is unacceptable that DoHMH would not be transparent in its intention and decision to open this facility in our community,” Orman said. “The agency was dishonest with this board and with our staff when asked directly whether this facility would indeed be sited in this district. The agency has shown blatant disregard and disrespect for this board and the concerns of the community it represents.”