On any given day, members of the media aren’t welcome at 519 Oxford St.
That’s the site of a needle exchange for intravenous drug users, a program started in early November that health officials hope will help stem the spread of hepatitis, HIV and other diseases.
If the media start hanging out there, though, people who want to remain anonymous won’t come.
But Monday morning, when it was a crisp 8 below zero, reporters were given a cold welcome to the small office to see exactly how the program works.
Visitors will be welcomed by a table with snacks, said Mindy Waldron of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health. A nurse will greet them, introduce herself and ask their names. It’s all meant to be conversational and nonjudgmental. No one will ask for an ID or an address or telephone number.
Clients are supposed to provide a name, but drug users looking for clean needles often want to remain completely anonymous, so, as a last resort, the exchange will accept the third letter of the person’s first and last name and the decade in which they were born. So if your name is Frank Gray and you were born in the 1960s, you’d be known only as AA1960. You’d actually get a little ID saying that. It’s just a way of tracking clients, that’s all, Waldron said.
The visits won’t take long. A nurse might ask a client if they have any health problems, such as an infected wound. The center could treat the wound or refer them to an emergency room if it is more serious. They ask what drug they’re using and how often they use it.
Clients are told the center can refer them for mental health counseling, or let them know that they can arrange for addictions counseling.
"It depends on the individual," said Jeff Markley, executive director of the Positive Resource Connection, which owns the building. A visit might take only five minutes, he said. Someone with more questions might take longer.
But offering clean needles is one of the priorities, and clients are given a packet with everything they need.
There are hypodermic needles in packages of 10. Each person gets 30 on the first visit.
There is a rubber strap to wrap around the arm. Also included are two tiny cook pots, about the size of a screw-top from a bottle of wine, and a length of wire to make a handle.
Users empty a little container of sterile water into the pot, mix in the drug they are using, heat the mixture with a lighter, then use tiny cotton balls as filters to draw the liquid into the syringe.
They are provided alcohol wipes to clean the spot of the injection, small bandages, and a small container of triple antibiotic cream.
Finally, there is a small biohazard container to hold used needles. The user then returns the container and gets a clean needle for every used one.
It all comes in a little brown grocery bag worth a few dollars.
So far, only four different people have visited the exchange, which is open from 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays. They’re men and women, different ages.
And they look like anyone else you’d see walking down the street, Waldron said. Some have full-time jobs.
They’re just addicts, and the county is just trying to prevent them from spreading diseases that will otherwise cost the county millions of dollars to treat.
Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.