New York Harm Reduction Group Shows The Benefits of Peer-Delivered Syringe Exchange

Washington Heights Corner Project

Staff from the Washington Heights CORNER Project

In my last article I examined the Peer-Delivered Syringe Exchange (PDSE) program, a vital harm reduction initiative that helps reach vulnerable injecting drug users (IDUs) who are unable to visit a syringe exchange program (SEP).

A perfect example of a successful PDSE program is the one at Washington Heights CORNER Project (WHCP), in Northern Manhattan, New York. WHCP is an office and street-based harm reduction organization which provides free sterile equipment to IDUs -- as well as people who use other drugs like crack and powder cocaine -- in order to combat the spread of blood borne viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C. Vital education on safer drug use is given alongside clean equipment.

WHCP currently offers 8 peer positions, with one mainly focusing on advocacy and two focusing on expanding syringe access in Hamilton Heights (a neighborhood south of Washington Heights in Manhattan). The remaining peer roles are dedicated to outreach and syringe access in the Washington Heights neighborhood. Altogether, they provide anywhere from 22 percent to 64 percent of the monthly distribution of syringe exchange transactions.

Eddie, Betty and Ellery (pictured below, l-r) are all current peers at WHCP. All three were introduced to the organization while they themselves were active drug users, and became participants of the program in order to have access to their services.

It’s hard not to become motivated by the WHCP’s work, something Betty agreed wholeheartedly with. “Seeing people offer their time and helping out the community, making sure people are educated, making sure they were using properly” inspired her to get involved and become part of the PDSE team, she said. 

Eddie was in and out of jail before he became involved with the WHCP. Once he started, he found the support to help him confront the challenges in his life better than any he had had before. “[I] took a liking to people caring about [my] life, fully showing straight up love," he said, and because of that pushed himself to become a peer. He has not been back to jail since. 

“I met Jamie [the founder of WHCP] after I got out of prison, and she gave me a chance to volunteer while I was on parole” Ellery said. After his parole was finished, he applied for a peer position and based on his demonstrated commitment to harm reduction was offered the role.

Samantha (pictured below, right), meanwhile, began as a participant before applying for a peer position, and after nine months was promoted to the position of full-time Outreach Worker at WHCP. “I just wanted to make a better place for everybody”, she said about becoming a peer. “I wanted to help people. I did a lot wrong in my life and I figured this way I can give back to the community."

All four stress just how important the PDSE program is for them personally as well as for their community. By becoming a peer, they were able to receive education on topics such as safer drug use, safer sex, OD prevention, how to avoid contracting HIV and hepatitis C along with many other relevant topics for the drug user community. According to Ellery, becoming a peer, “made me safer while I was using."

When asked what being a peer did for Samantha, she said: “I learned to live all over again. It made me a stronger person, it made me see there is life without drugs, there is life after tragedy”.

Ellery said becoming a peer taught him “discipline and responsibility. [It] brought me back into the work rhythm. It gave me a chance for my voice to be heard and to make a difference."

Because peers have direct ties to the drug user community in their area, they are able to pass on the information they have learned through the WHCP to other participants, friends or anybody they come into contact with who could benefit from that kind of knowledge and education.

“It’s very important, we save peoples lives. Without this program there would be a lot more casualties,” Ellery says.

Samantha, Ellery, Eddie and Betty are all inspirational examples of how beneficial and important the PDSE program is. Despite all having dealt with drug use at some point in their lives and facing extreme challenges, they are now making a huge effort to ensure their community is smarter and safer. They are living proof that no matter how bad things get, with the help of something like the PDSE program, it is possible to turn your own life around, educate people and save others' lives, and make a difference.

For more on the WHCP's work, see "Robert's Story," below, and visit their website.