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South Jersey AIDS Alliance, residents file lawsuit to stop Atlantic City needle exchange closure

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Needleex Change

Georgett Watson, chief operations officer for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, opens a box of clean syringes at the needle exchange on Tennessee Avenue.

ATLANTIC CITY — The South Jersey AIDS Alliance and three residents have filed a lawsuit asking a judge to stop the city from shutting down its syringe access program next month.

The program, which is operated by the AIDS Alliance out of the Oasis Drop-In Center on Tennessee Avenue, is slated to close Oct. 12 after an ordinance passed by City Council in July banned it from operating.

“It is our responsibility to do everything we can to protect the people who entrust their health and well being to South Jersey AIDS Alliance,” Carol Harney, CEO of the AIDS Alliance, said in a statement Wednesday. “We’re hopeful that justice will prevail and that people living with a substance use disorder and people living with, or at risk of, HIV will continue to have access to essential syringe services.”

Council President George Tibbitt said he wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit.

“Our intel told us over a month ago they were going to do this,” Tibbitt said. “We (council) know that we followed the statute and follow the letter of the law, so we’re going to give our attorneys an opportunity to review it.”

Tibbitt said the safety of Atlantic City residents comes before “the 100 people from outside the area coming in here to grab needles and throw them all over the street.”

The AIDS Alliance, in its filing, included three clients as plaintiffs. The three, who were identified only by initials, are residents of the city, according to the complaint.

In 2020, more than 1,200 people accessed new, sterile syringes through the program, AIDS Alliance officials said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30 years of research have shown such programs are cost effective, help reduce drug overdoses, encourage users to seek treatment and reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis.

“Prohibiting syringe services programs due to inaccurate myths and stereotypes about the people who need them denies people life-saving care,” Sally Friedman, vice president of legal advocacy at the Legal Action Center, said in a statement.

The idea of moving the Oasis Drop-In Center off Tennessee Avenue, in the resort’s Tourism District, has been on the table for years.

Wilson Washington Jr., the city’s former director of health and human services, disagreed with council’s decision and recommended the program remain open but move to a different building.

“We identified a new potential location, the old Ginsburg Bakery at 300 N. Tennessee Ave.,” Washington wrote in an email June 23. “We agreed that any future solution would need both SJ AIDS Alliance and Atlantic City Health Department working together in the same location.”

Washington said the AIDS Alliance would conduct current services like the needle exchange while the Health Department could add “a stronger social services component.”

He also said moving the program to mobile units, like city officials had discussed in previous years, would not be sufficient.

On June 14, two days before council introduced the ordinance to repeal the program, Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health science, and Jeremiah Goulka, a senior fellow at the Health in Justice Action Lab at the Northeastern University School of Law, sent an eight-page document to city and state officials that outlined the legal risk of shutting down the program.

“The proposal to close the SSP (syringe service program) is not just counterproductive public health policy; it may also be bad law,” according to the document. “Should the Atlantic City Council move forward with termination, it might expose Atlantic City and New Jersey taxpayers to litigation on several fronts, including claims for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (RA), and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

According to the document, courts have rejected similar local ordinances on treatment facilities and their clients, labeling them discriminatory.

“Similar analysis is applicable to syringe exchange programs,” according to the document.

Closing the program would have detrimental public health, legal and economic consequences, Beletsky and Goulka concluded.

Council members and other supporters of shutting down the program have said stray needles and an overwhelming number of out-of-towners coming into the city for social services have pushed them to the point of repealing the program altogether.

The program was the first needle exchange to open in New Jersey in 2007 and is just one of seven in the state, along with programs in Asbury Park, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson and Trenton.

Those pushing to save the program believe council made a grave mistake.

“The Atlantic City Council does not see all the harms that syringe access prevents because syringe access is successfully preventing them. Removing syringe access services is directly targeting people who use drugs, people living with a substance use disorder, and people living with or at risk of HIV,” said Caitlin O’Neill, director of harm reduction services for the Harm Reduction Coalition. “If the concern is homelessness, we need more housing. If the concern is discarded syringes, we need more syringe disposal boxes. If the concern is public drug use, we need more housing and safer consumption spaces. If the concern is poverty, we need living wages and guaranteed income. Removing syringe services is the exact opposite of what will help.”

In addition to the syringe program, the Oasis center provides other services to its clients. According to officials, in 2020 the center distributed 1,380 naloxone kits, provided transportation for 2,500 medical appointments, distributed more than 25,800 condoms, helped 42 people pay utility bills and 46 people pay rent, and distributed more than 4,600 food bags.

Contact Molly Shelly:

609-272-7241

mshelly@pressofac.com

Twitter @mollycshelly

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