Group works to stem the effects of opioid crisis
When Martin Iglesias was first infected with hepatitis C at 33 years old, he was cured of the virus a couple of months later through a cocktail of medicines, but those left him with horrific side effects such as rheumatoid arthritis. The second time he was infected he was living in a homeless shelter, and this time around, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis induced by the virus.
That was seven years ago, and now he not only has a plan to keep himself healthy, but he makes those same plans for others. As the hepatitis C peer navigator for St. Ann’s Corner for Harm Reduction, a center in Longwood that provides drug users with an individualized and comprehensive cluster of healing services, Iglesias is in charge of testing participants for the virus as well as helping them get treatment. In the case of hepatitis C, a simple test and treatment can spare people from years of painful symptoms such as the ones Iglesias lived through, and keep them from spreading the disease. The New York State Department of Health estimates that harm reduction production programs have cut the risk of contracting the virus by half.
“Unlike when I got diagnosed, there is now a one pill a day treatment that is 98 percent effective and has very little to almost no side effects,” said Iglesias. “But most people infected have no idea they are carrying the virus so they can’t get the treatment.”
St. Ann’s Corner was founded in 1990 by Joyce Rivera and her husband, Bart Magoor in the height of the HIV crisis of the ‘90s. The organization approached the problem of drug addiction, then and now, through a completely different lens. The ethos of the center is not to eliminate drug addiction, but to prevent drug users from harming themselves any further with secondary risks and illnesses.
Rivera brought the idea of harm reduction into the Bronx after doing extensive work on HIV prevention and drug use. Now, with a staff of approximately 23 people and a budget of $1.3 million, the organization plans to keep doing this work in the South Bronx, which has the second highest rate among the five boroughs of drug overdose deaths today.
“We’re doing this for the community, not politicians or any power figures who need to look tough on drugs,” said Magoor, the clinical director at the center. “We’re trying to establish a safe place where participants are not targeted by the police – a place where they can have a moment of rest or a hot shower after a night’s work or after whatever they do.”
Drug-related deaths have been on the rise in recent years due to the heroin and opioid crisis. As of 2016, 34 in every 100,000 residents in the Bronx died from an overdose, more than gun homicides and car crashes combined, according to a study by the New York Department of Health.
Daniel Raymond, the deputy director of policy and planning for the Harm Reduction Coalition, a nationwide organization that promotes harm reduction programs, noted that St. Ann’s Corner is a pioneer in the practice, and has had a powerful influence in the Bronx.
“When they first started, there weren’t a lot of options for drug users, and the center managed to bring people in who had been pushed out by the system,” he said.
St. Ann’s Corner regularly sets up syringe exchange programs on the streets, to decrease the chances of users contracting and spreading viruses. The center also offers acupuncture as a form of healing and stress reduction; screening and testing, free meals and showers, educational workshops and support groups. For example, Deborah Watkins, the health coordinator for people between the ages of 20 and 30, does art therapy and role-play every Friday morning in order to “explore the emotional health of participants and help them deal with whichever struggle they might have at the moment,” she said.
The latest challenge for the center is dealing with the fallout from fentanyl-laced heroin, a painkiller that is 50 times more potent than morphine and is typically used to treat late-stage cancer patients. The sudden upsurge of fentanyl has motivated the center to distribute testing strips for the substance and create an Overdose Prevention Training workshop for both users and their families. The testing strips allow users to see the drug’s effectiveness, so they can control the use when shooting up.
“Up until recently, nobody knew about fentanyl, what it does and why, and there is still a lot of ignorance around the substance,” said Magoor.
In the near 30 years Magoor and Rivera have been operating in Longwood, they have run into very little opposition to their techniques, even though they often run contrary to general practices regarding drug addiction.
Magoor recalls the first days of the center in the early ‘90s when he and another outreach worker distributed free condoms to kids outside a local high school. A few days later, the principal of the school came out with a security guard and asked them to please stop passing by the school because he was receiving complaints from the kids’ parents. But that was one of the very few times he has ever received a complaint.
“It is really amazing how non-using community members support the program, because they all know someone or have family members who are using,” Magoor said.
As for Iglesias, he plans to continue to advocate for the awareness of hepatitis C on behalf of the center – and as part of his own personal mission. His own experience taught him that tackling the smaller issues is one of the effective ways to chip away at the bigger problems.