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D.C.'s largest needle-exchange program running out of cash

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Despite $1 million in city AIDS funding over three years, the District's largest needle-exchange program is nearly out of cash and has at times been unable to supply clean syringes to intravenous drug users.

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The shortage comes after years of turmoil at Prevention Works, which offers needle exchanges at its Northeast Washington headquarters and from a mobile unit that sweeps the city's most drug-addled neighborhoods.

"I am distraught," said Philip Terry, executive director of Prevention Works. "I am not happy that we're in this circumstance."

For nearly a decade, Congress had banned the District from using government money to give addicts clean needles, even though intravenous drug use is blamed for helping to spread HIV in the District. The ban was lifted in 2007, freeing the city to fund the needle exchange at Prevention Works. At the time, it was the only program of its kind in the District.

Just after Thanksgiving, however, Prevention Works' employees learned the agency was out of rubber gloves, antibiotic ointment and diabetic needles, the needles of choice among addicts. There was no money for payroll or gas in the mobile unit.

The agency's cash crunch had been simmering for months, with bills to consultants and vendors unpaid and clients turned away without supplies, interviews and records show. Three employees said the agency ran out of biohazard containers over the summer, forcing staff to stash dirty syringes in bags and boxes.

A series of e-mails, obtained by The Washington Post, chronicles the agency's struggles.

In August, the program director of Prevention Works, Mary Beth Levin, e-mailed a colleague: "Tried to use the [Prevention Works] credit card today at Staples but was rejected."

In October, she wrote: "We are short $13,831.95 for payroll."

Early last month, quality assurance coordinator Rachel Gutfreund e-mailed Terry: "It is upsetting to see clients walk out of here with the same dirty [equipment] they came in with. I have received no explanation for why we are continually out of [needles] and other supplies not just for a few days -- but for many weeks multiple times throughout the year. . . . What is going wrong?"

Late last month, Prevention Works' director of administration, Kumara Rama, e-mailed the city: "We have payroll on Friday and once again we do not have the funds needed to make payroll."

Terry said the agency's financial problems are not unlike those affecting other cash-starved nonprofit groups. He said private donations were lower than expected this year, which left Prevention Works several hundred thousand dollars short on a $1 million annual budget.

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