A WCBS Special Report Series, By Marla Diamond

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) – Clean needle exchange sites in New York City established during the AIDS crisis are now ground zero for the opioid epidemic.

Mark Townsend, of the Washington Heights CORNER Project on 181st Street, tells Marla Diamond that people will often run in from the neighborhood for help.

“We had someone come screaming in that there was someone overdosing in an apartment up the building. There was one at Payless, one at Burger King, one in our bathroom, one out on the street,” he said. “So it feels in the last little while that it’s getting worse, and we’re like on the front lines.” 

Learn More: Killer Tide: ‘Your Life Still Matters To Us’

He says they have a moral obligation to make sure no one dies in their bathroom. There are clean surfaces, sterile water for mixing drugs, and a container to discard used needles.

People are checked on every three minutes by a bathroom monitor.

“If we don’t hear from them, we’ll go into the bathroom and save their lives often,” said Townsend.

Daniel is a drug user who says the CORNER Project is a safe haven where no one judges him.

“I’ve actually OD-ed before,” he tells Diamond.

To give back, he monitors the bathrooms on occasion.

“It just saved my life. I wasn’t breathing a minute ago, and now here I am breathing and I’m alive again,” he said. “I’m able to walk out and go see my kids and my family again.”

killer tide 1 Killer Tide: Monitored Bathroom Helps Addicts Avoid Accidental Overdoses

(Credit: Marla Diamond/WCBS Newsradio 880)

More: Killer Tide: Grassroots Groups Join The Fight

Adrianna Pericchi is the CORNER Project’s director of harm reduction.

“It’s a kind approach, it’s a pragmatic approach, and really it’s just about safety and love,” she said. “We love our folks, we love our community. We hurt so much every time we lose someone, and that is way too often.”

Pericchi says their bathrooms mirror good public health policy.

“The state Department of Health has guidelines for the bathroom – that they require a sharps container in there, they require adequate lighting, and they suggest things like a chair, a table to be able to put possessions on. People are homeless; people have a lot with them. And they suggest monitoring,” she said.

killer tide 2 Killer Tide: Monitored Bathroom Helps Addicts Avoid Accidental Overdoses

(Credit: Marla Diamond/WCBS Newsradio 880)

More: Killer Tide. The Opioid Epidemic

The bathroom exists in a gray area under the law.

Safe injection sites do not. They are illegal in the United States.

But Seattle is taking steps to open one. Harm reduction advocates in San Francisco and New York City are pushing for them, as well, as a way to reduce overdose deaths.

As Killer Tide continues, making the case for and against safe injection sites.

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