By Mark Powell
Bringing Syringe Exchange out of the Darkness
Sometimes, helping draw attention to one issue can lead to addressing another. That’s precisely what happened with Prevention Point Philadelphia.
Its story started nearly 30 years ago. Back during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, a group called Act UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) wanted to direct attention to the disease and encourage more treatment for it. Activists discovered there was a 95% infection rate among IV drug users. So, Prevention Point began as an underground syringe exchange program in Philadelphia designed to help people stay well.
“Everything changed in 1992 when then-Mayor Ed Rendell signed an executive order making syringe exchange legal in the city. Prevention Point grew from there,” says Jose Benitez, Executive Director of Prevention Point Philadelphia. Prevention Point’s growth has been particularly rapid in recent years.
Prevention Point offers a broad range of medical and non-medical services,” he says. “Some of the key ones are distributing free overdose prevention kits and training people in how to use them, exchanging used syringes for clean ones, providing wound care and referrals to primary care clinics, conducting medically assisted treatment, operating temporary housing, and connecting people with a variety of resources to help them get their lives back on track.”
The welcome mat is out for anyone who walks in its doors in the Kensington neighborhood, he adds, regardless of where they live. In fact, one of Prevention Point’s features is an Engagement Center–a place where people are welcome to hang out. “We offer a drop-in center seven days a week where people can have a respite from the outside weather and connect to many of our services, ranging from drug treatment options to a legal clinic, medical clinics, emergency housing, mail service, and hot meals.”
That’s because Prevention Point’s approach is from a harm-reduction perspective. “Our approach is called “harm reduction” because it meets people where they are in life. We believe that Prevention Point is valuable because of the range of services and daily outreach in the community that we provide. We are working with individuals every day, meeting them where they are to make a difference.” “Harm reduction works,” Benitez says in conclusion. “Having compassion is the tenet of everything we do.” do.”
Prevention Point was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.