End of needle exchange marks loss of a bulwark in D.C.’s AIDS fight

Petula Dvorak
Columnist February 24, 2011

They are a tough sell for sympathy, the addicts.

One couple rolls up in a primer-gray hooptie. She’s got toothpick legs, one improbably skinnier than the other. Her skeletal frame is swimming in a child’s Bugs Bunny denim jacket.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

He’s scary skinny, too, with withered teeth sticking out of white gums and a mean streak.

“How can they do this? I thought this was supposed to stop the AIDS. What, they want more people to get the AIDS?” he snarls at the folks who tell him the brown paper bag they’re giving him is the last batch of free needles he’ll get.

The needle exchange program is dead. Because of a drop in private donations, city budget delays and other financial woes, it will close Feb. 25.

The man goes on: “I’ve been coming here for, I dunno, about 10 years. What am I gonna do now?”

They screech away in the car, mouths still moving behind their dirty windows, screaming obscenities at the volunteers who will no longer be there for them.

What are we going to do now? We are the nation’s HIV/AIDS capital. Our infection rate has skyrocketed to 3 percent. That’s worse than some of the West African countries that have declared it an epidemic.

For 12 years, the beige RV that is the PreventionWorks rolling needle exchange program has pulled up to the curb at Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington on Friday afternoons.

There’s a long line along the sidewalk, and folks take turns stepping inside, shutting the metal door behind them. They are surprisingly punctual.

There are the ornery, leatherfaced, habitual drug users you would expect. They don’t really want to hear about counseling or group meetings or anything like that. They’re shooting their way to their graves.

But there was also a woman in a long, black cardigan, pretty jewelry and freshly done hair. She wants off drugs, she’s got a wound, and she’s afraid to go to the hospital.

There are other addicts like her, people who are not totally gone, who live a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence, alternating between drug chaos and a cardigan life with a job and kids.

For them is the sign in the RV that reads:

“There are times and situations where a non-judgmental attitude can be about life and death.”

A stout, muscular guy from a meat delivery company walked by. He had no idea what the RV was for and snickered when the female volunteers standing outside asked him whether he wanted some condoms.

When he figured it out, he backed away, waving his hands in front of him: “I don’t do that stuff,” he told them.

“Do you know your status?” one of the volunteers asked. He looked puzzled. “Your HIV status?” she said.

“Oh. Well, no. I mean, I don’t think I could have it. But I guess I could,” he stammered.

“It only takes 20 minutes to get your results,” she told him.

So the meat man walked in, got the inside of his cheek swabbed and emerged with a grin on his face. Negative. Whew.

And then came a guy sweating and rocking, near tears.

The RV tipped and squeaked as he stepped into it, and he settled into the chair.

“I’m telling you. I’m not a bad dude. I need to kick this. I want to kick this,” he told the women working the van. “I just want to get detoxed. I want a 90-day program or something. Just anything.”

Ordinarily, the PreventionWorks folks would start a medical chart for him and work on getting him into classes and one of their programs right away.

One of the volunteers offered him a phone number and a rehab program that could take him on Tuesday.

“I don’t know if I can make it till Tuesday,” he said. “If you see something about a dead guy on the news, that’ll be me.”

You can find sympathy for him, right? He’s trying.

And for all the other people this program is for. Safely disposing of dirty needles is about protecting the kids in the park who might come across one thrown in the bushes. It’s for the sanitation worker who is a husband and father and gets stuck by a tainted needle tossed in an alley trash can. And it’s for the wife of a drug user who has no idea what her husband is doing behind her back, but at least he’s keeping himself — and her — virus-free.

The average cost of lifetime care for someone with HIV/AIDS is about $385,200. You know who’s paying that in many cases. PreventionWorks was getting about $300,000 a year from the city budget. It collapsed while waiting for $130,000 in delayed funds. (Which is roughly five years of leasing one of D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown’s (D) fully loaded SUVs.)

On Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) announced a new HIV/AIDS commission with 27 members.

Those 27 members are going to have a hard time replicating the work of one beige RV.

dvorakp@washpost.com

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