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Franklinton Residents React To New Neighbor: Columbus' Only Needle Exchange

Safe Point is Central Ohio's only needle exchange program.
Paige Pfleger

West Park Avenue looks like an idyllic Columbus street: A-tree lined boulevard cuts through the middle, and every house has a porch and a small front yard.

But looking closer, it’s clear the neighborhood has been hit by the opioid crisis. A few houses are boarded up, and orange caps from syringes litter the sidewalk.

Vicky is just getting home from picking her kids up at school. Children spill out of the back seat of her minivan, and she shoos them into her house.

“I just lost my best friend four months ago, her husband died last night, my husband is in recovery, my niece was murdered over these drugs,” she says. “I just – the dealers need to die. I don’t care. I hate it. I hate it.”

WOSU is not using Vicky’s last name to protect her and her family’s privacy.

“I hate the drugs,” she says. “I grew up down here, I don’t want to leave the area because this is where I was born and raised, but I don’t want to be here anymore.”

Vicky looks around at the vacant houses, exasperated.

“It’s everywhere. It’s every other house on this block is drugs. It’s right in our faces. He’s trying to get clean, it’s right in his face,” she says, gesturing inside at her husband.

Vicky says the neighborhood had enough to deal with before the city’s only needle exchange program moved to just a block away. The program, Safe Point, relocated from the Short North earlier this year.

Now she worries it will bring in more drugs, and people who use them.

“Well we already have drug users in the neighborhood, so I mean in all reality, I guess they need something,” says Vicky’s neighbor Dan Collins. “I don’t want to see a bunch of people get a bunch of AIDs and stuff like that.”

A vacant house in Franklinton is littered with used syringes, bottle caps and needles.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
A vacant house in Franklinton is littered with used syringes, bottle caps and needles.

Safe Point moved to Franklinton because it has one of the highest overdose death rates in the city.

“In Franklinton and in the West Side, people see it a lot more and a lot of their families are affected, a lot of people they know are affected,” says Dwayne Steward of Equitas Health, which runs the needle exchange program. “People I think were a lot less hesitant because this is something that is really affected their community and they saw us trying to come in and help.”

Safe Point has been around for three years, with a goal of helping reduce the spread of diseases like HIV or Hepatitis C

The new building at 1267 Broad Street is the program’s first dedicated space. Before, the program operated out of the Equitas Medical Center in the Short North. Steward says there wasn’t enough space at their previous location to meet demand.

“When we opened, our doors immediately, the flood gates kind of opened,” he says. “And we were seeing lines out the door of people who really needed our services.”

Every day, 4,300 people use injectable drugs in Columbus, according to the city's Public Health department.

The new, larger space has allowed Safe Point to transition from being just a needle exchange program to a more comprehensive harm reduction center. They hired additional staff, including a health navigator to help link people to treatment.

Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Dwayne Steward is the Director of Prevention for Equitas Health.

Safe Point also expanded their hours of operation from two days a week to four, nearly doubling the number of people they can see.

“We have to have a cap, actually, for the number of people that we see because of the epidemic being like it is,” Steward says. “So we have a cap at 60 people per day and we’re hitting that cap every day for the four days that we’re open.”

The move has made some people who utilize the program feel more comfortable coming in. Christopher, whose last name we're not using to protect his privacy, says that when he visited the Short North location he felt judged and unwelcome.

“The general sentiment of the people in the area – which I mean, the Short North might kind of have that attitude.” Christopher says. “Here, I feel like it’s really needed here in this area.”

Since the move, Safe Point workers say they’ve seen old faces from the Short North and new faces from the West Side. They hope that by moving into the heart of the neighborhood hit hardest by opioids, they can meet people who need the program closer to home.