It’s a warm Sunday night on Feb. 21, and Peoples Park is bustling. People sit on benches, lounge on statues and stand talking in haphazard circles. The ground is littered with plastic bags and possessions.
A big beige truck glides to a stop on the park’s north end, just like every Sunday.
On its side reads “Indiana Recovery Alliance,” the organization that began Monroe County’s first and only needle exchange program.
Coffee and clothes are given out in the open, but inside the privacy of the truck, a nurse treats anyone who needs it while volunteers give out safety supplies, sign people up for the needle exchange program and give them clean syringes.
“I need a ten pack,” a man wearing a hat says before being welcomed into the truck.
Some need clean needles to use drugs safely, while others need them for hormone, insulin or other injections.
Needle exchange volunteers don’t ask for names or what the syringes will be used for. They only need to know how many syringes a person needs until they can come back again, to drop off used ones and pick up more.
“Our target is for IV drug users to use a clean syringe every time they shoot,” Chris Abert, and alliance founder, said.
The alliance only tracks the number of participants in the program and the number of syringes given out and received, Abert said. They use that information to track the effectiveness of the program.
“But nobody’s personal information is revealed,” he said.
The volunteers and the people seeking help talk together. Some know each other by name.
One of these volunteers has track marks.
She’s experienced what other drug users have — she’s been addicted to heroin before. She knows what it’s like to be stigmatized and treated like a second-class citizen. For this reason, the Indiana Daily Student has agreed to not identify her, as to not jeopardize her work and personal safety.
For a year, she could barely make it 24 hours without shooting up. She knows the desperation of needing the next high, the misery of withdrawal and the cold sweats and hot flashes of a detox.
She got help, though, and detoxed at home before going for three months to a treatment center. She stayed sober for a while but recently began using again.
She knows the need for clean syringes — for some, they can mean life or death.
But even more importantly, she knows how desperately addicts need allies.
“I wish there was more open conversation between people like addicts and non-addicts about their life and what’s going on,” she said. “Just an open discussion instead of something that feels shameful. Because that’s how people die. You don’t want to talk about it because you feel ashamed, and if you don’t talk about it, how are people supposed to help?”
That’s why the alliance is important, she said. It’s a door to that discussion she said she thinks needs to happen. That’s why she volunteers.
“It’s something I’m passionate about,” she said. “Part of it is fighting the stigma. People want to make you feel less than because you’re a drug addict, but people forget they’re human beings. We’re human.”
About a year ago, Abert started the alliance with friends. It began with riding around on bikes and with trailers, handing out coats, coffee and supplies like biohazard containers, tourniquets, cookers and naloxone, which can stop an opioid overdose. Then they graduated to the beige truck donated by the Chicago Recovery Alliance.
The organization’s needle exchange program began Feb. 14, but alliance volunteers started a conversation about one before the HIV outbreak happened in southeastern Indiana early last year.
A high number of hepatitis C cases is an indicator of the likelihood of an HIV outbreak, Abert said. They saw a rising number of hepatitis C cases, so they thought a needle exchange program would help. But they didn’t think an HIV outbreak would happen.
Then it did.
“Sharing needles is the main force behind that,” Abert said.
Hepatitis C is mostly spread through sharing needles by injection drug users, according to the Center for Disease Control.
From mid-December 2014 to Feb. 25, 2015, 30 HIV cases were reported, according to a press release from the Indiana State Department of Health on Feb. 25, 2015.
By March 27, there were 81 cases. Gov. Mike Pence declared a public health emergency in Scott County.
Most cases were linked to people injecting opana, a prescription opioid painkiller. Some were a result of sexual transmission, a state health department press release stated on Feb. 27, 2015.
“Drug abuse is the clear driving force behind this outbreak,” State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams said in a March 20, 2015 press release.
The Indiana General Assembly legalized needle exchange programs not long after the first HIV outbreak on the condition that there was evidence an HIV or hepatitis C epidemic was occurring as a direct result of IV drug use. That led to the state’s first needle exchange program in Scott County in April 2015.
Since then, similar programs have started in Madison and Clark counties.
Ten people signed up for the program within three days of its launch, Abert said. The alliance holds walk-in hours at its office at 500 W. Fourth St. and does outreach at Peoples Park.
Only a handful of people have come to the office, though, Abert said.
“This is a very suspicious population,” he said. “They’re very stigmatized. They’re criminalized.”
Some are scared of getting arrested if they’re seen going to the office, Abert said, because possessing a syringe with the intent to use it for an illegal drug is a felony.
Police officers are restricted from stopping or searching people just because they visited the office. They can’t sit outside and watch. If officers search and seize, they have to have gained probable cause information elsewhere.
The alliance gives every participant a card that proves they’re using the program. Erika Oliphant, Monroe County’s deputy prosecuting attorney, said many police officers won’t arrest people with the card.
“We don’t want to deter anyone from using the program because it’s helping prevent disease,” Oliphant said.
Oliphant’s office would not prosecute someone simply for having syringes.
“I suspect the law enforcement agencies will follow my lead on that,” she said. “I can’t speak for the police agencies. As far as my office, I wouldn’t prosecute somebody under those circumstances.”