“We are in the midst of a worsening overdose crisis. Children don’t deserve the remnants of drug use in the playground, or to lose loved ones to overdose. People who struggle with drug use shouldn’t have to hide in dark places to avoid having their health issues confronted with shame and judgment.”
When a friend recommended I check out a small school in East Harlem, I never suspected that the neighborhood and its people would become such an integral part of my life. Both of my children blossomed in East Harlem and now, 20 years later, I work as a parent coordinator at the school I toured all those years ago. The people of this neighborhood are close to my heart and always on my mind and I am concerned about the impact of drug overdoses on our community.
New York City lost a record-high 2,668 people to drug overdoses in 2021 and East Harlem is among the hardest hit neighborhoods. I see how this impacts our students and families both directly and indirectly, and I am constantly looking for resources to help them. This is why I support overdose prevention centers, and the work they do providing services to the community and reducing public drug use.
Last summer, I stood in an East Harlem school yard as families streamed in for the summer enrichment program. Children, in their bright clothes and backpacks, were laughing…and crying…school enrichment isn’t every 6-year-old’s idea of summer fun. Among the conversations, about pick-up time and lunches, one sentence stood out, “A needle in the playground…”
I know public drug use has occurred in East Harlem for decades, but it was startling to experience it as a part of school life. My initial thoughts were filled with criticism and concern. How dare they use drugs where children play? What if a child picked up a needle? What if, instead of a needle, it was a person laying on the ground? What if a child recognized the person?
In my job, in life, as a mother, I have learned that solutions are most often found by viewing situations from different perspectives. So, I took another look and saw that, at night, the playground became a dark, quiet place where someone might go to get away from punishing eyes. Of course, I don’t want people using drugs in playgrounds and near schools. But where could they go? The street? Subway? Behind a building?
We are in the midst of a worsening overdose crisis. Children don’t deserve the remnants of drug use in the playground, or to lose loved ones to overdose. People who struggle with drug use shouldn’t have to hide in dark places to avoid having their health issues confronted with shame and judgment. Ideally, they could find their way to health and stability, but how do they get there? This dilemma stayed with me as one of the problems I’m at a loss for solving for our families.
Months later, I was introduced to OnPoint NYC’s East Harlem center. I knew nothing about harm reduction or overdose prevention, but I immediately saw that just by providing a space to safely use drugs and be saved from a fatal overdose, OnPoint was solving what I thought was unsolvable. I saw something transformative that was more than giving people a safe place to use drugs and dispose of needles.
Like many, I’ve regarded people who struggle with drug addiction with fear or disdain. At OnPoint, I found myself averting my eyes, not wanting to look into the face of addiction. Then I heard Sam Rivera, the center’s executive director, speaking to people with a tone of love and admiration. His love for them compelled me to look into their faces and see their humanity, and seeing their humanity made me feel my own. I’ve always believed everyone deserves care and compassion; at OnPoint I saw how it can transform how we see others, and ourselves.
I had walked into OnPoint believing I was entering a place where addicts go to do drugs. That perspective was transformed as well. This was more than an alternative to dark, lonely playgrounds where people are separated from their humanity. OnPoint is a place for human beings to come and do their best to get through the day with loving support.
There are a variety of services available to address the unmet needs of all people in the community, whether or not they use drugs. In addition to the room where drug use is monitored, there are medical care rooms, a nap room, meal and laundry areas, massage and aromatherapy and acupuncture, and soon a salon and barbershop. All provided by a caring staff.
As a parent coordinator who is dedicated to the well-being and safety of families, and as a mother myself, I am heartened by all the services OnPoint makes available to members of a community who are often forgotten, neglected and harshly judged.
I am grateful they reduce the likelihood of parents or children losing a loved one to overdose.
I am inspired that by recognizing and addressing people’s humanity, they support individuals and families to heal and learn, which is what we strive to do in schools every day.
As I grapple with the effects of drug-use on our neighborhoods, I am delighted to have another partner in the work of community healing. I look forward to more sites like this, providing dignified care for those who need a place to safely use drugs and for those who just need a safe space, leaving playgrounds as places where our children can be carefree.
Julie Atwell is the parent coordinator at an East Harlem public school.