Back to the Old Neighborhood: The Founder of a Needle Exchange Dies from a Dose, June/July 1996

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Before drug stores could sell syringes as legally as toothpaste, Brian Weil and his volunteers used to meet on Saturday nights at 110th and Broadway. Clean needles in hand, they snaked through single room occupancy hotels where the city housed people with AIDS, and gave the syringes away. They were lawbreaking renegades.

Today, the organization Weil founded, CitiWide Harm Reduction, has a $1.5 million budget and 1,800 registered participants. What’s more, it’s sanctioned by the state. Less than a year ago, it became legal to sell needles at pharmacies in New York. But CitiWide is hardly irrelevant. It’s the only group in New York State permitted to deliver syringes where many drug users live–in SROs–instead of waiting for clients to come to them.

But Brian Weil, also a renowned photographer of the AIDS epidemic, isn’t around to see his underground service become part of the system. He died from a heroin overdose in 1996. Weil left behind a young organization that needed his fire. “It was hard to pick up after him,” says Steve Arrendell, who used to volunteer on the Upper West Side runs.

With a determined board of directors and volunteers, CitiWide moved from a church basement to an office off the Grand Concourse in 1998. To their surprise, their office became a haven for drug users, and they began to reshape their services accordingly.

Today, outreach workers still deliver syringes, condoms, toilet paper and food to SRO residents. Staff from Montefiore Medical Center provide house calls. But the CitiWide office also serves as a space for participants to eat, shower, receive counseling or get advice on city paperwork. “We’re a harm reduction organization,” says Daliah Heller, executive director since 1997, “but syringe exchange is only one component of what we do.”

CitiWide’s budget has swelled with contributions from AIDS funders like Glaxo Wellcome and Broadway Cares, but only a small part is earmarked for needle exchange. Little money is available specifically for that purpose, says Heller. As a result, CitiWide works almost exclusively with people who already have HIV and AIDS. But Weil wanted to do much more. “His vision was not just focused on AIDS–it was the big picture,” says Nancy Margeson, who collaborated with Weil at the methadone center at Mt. Sinai Hospital. He wanted to prevent secondary conditions associated with needle sharing, including hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases, as a first step toward overall care. Still, reaching out to people with AIDS does help control the epidemic, notes Heller: “It’s an opportunity to stem it from its source.”

CitiWide’s own world is changing. The number of syringes it distributes has dropped to 6,000 a month, one-fifth of the January 1999 number. Injection drug use is down at the SROs it serves, so CitiWide has applied for permission to do needle exchanges at their office too. “Anecdotally,” says Heller of needle users, “it seems that they’re not living in the inner city.”

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