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

Print More

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.”

Back to the Old Neighborhood
By Alyssa Katz

December 1996
Empowerment Zones Out
By Gillian Andrews

October 1996
A Teen in Trouble Finds a New Hang
By Megan Costello

August/September 1996
In The East Village, Rehab Is a Family Affair
By Megan Costello

November 1991
The Grandmother of Loisaida Fights to Keep Her Title
By Hilary Russ

February 1990
A Homeless Mother Wrangles with the City
By Megan Costello

August/September 1990
Home Health Workers Take Care of Business
By Abigail Rao

April 1989
People with AIDS Suffer a Second Epidemic: Homelessness
By Daniel Hendrick

June/July 1988
Wronged Residents Form Their Own Salvation Army
By Hilary Russ

November 1987
City Condemns Concourse Apartments
By Seth Solomonow

November 1986
A Union for the Homeless Takes Hold
By Hilary Russ

March 1985
Job Training Opens Doors for the Homeless
By Daniel Hendrick

March 1980
Tenants Turn a Dump Into a Dream
By Larry Schwartztol

December 1979
Dilapidation and Death on Avenue C
By Seth Solomonow

February 1975
Adding the Final Touch: A Windmill and Solar Panels
By Abigail Rao

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *