THE ORGANIZATION HAS MORE THAN 18,000
Six months into her long-term recovery, Kendell Howell-Lee, 36, is lending her time to help her old community.
“[I’m] able to see the same people that I was homeless with and help them and show them that they can do it,” she said. “And give back to my community that I once was homeless in.”
Howell-Lee is a volunteer at Prevention Point Philadelphia, a public health organization that provides services like free medical care, overdose prevention training and a syringe-exchange program. Howell-Lee has been volunteering at PPP for a month, but said she went there every day during her addiction.
Sam Sitrin has worked for PPP for 10 years in various roles, like managing cases, running a women’s group and working at the front desk and the syringe exchange.
“Harm reduction is an approach to many different kinds of care,” Sitrin said. “It’s like how to help people realize their own goals while keeping themselves safe. So if it’s not your goal to stop using drugs, just keeping you safe with what you’re doing.”
“I think harm reduction as an approach is critical because when people don’t use a harm reduction approach … people who are already marginalized feel further judged or stigmatized and avoid getting the care and resources they need,” Sitrin added.
PPP serves the “most vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations of Philadelphia,” according to its website. In addition to offering rapid HIV and Hepatitis C testing Monday through Thursdays, counseling groups, mailboxes for people who may not have permanent mailing addresses, the organization holds its syringe-exchange program six times per week at different locations, including PPP’s permanent location on Kensington Avenue near Monmouth Street on Fridays from noon to 3 p.m.
At the exchange, anyone can come and either give their PPP identification numbers or register with the organization to receive clean syringes and other resources. PPP participants are given identification numbers to receive services.
Individuals can take 20 syringes and supplies at one time — like antiseptic wipes, alcohol wipes and saline — for free. Beyond that, they can also bring in used syringes to PPP and receive an equal number of clean syringes in return.
According to PPP’s website, the organization has 18,000 registered participants and exchanges more than 1.4 million syringes per year.
When PPP opened in 1991 — during the height of the United States AIDS epidemic — it was an underground organization because syringe exchanges were illegal. But in 1992, Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell legalized the practice in Philadelphia. At the time, a third of people diagnosed with AIDS in Philadelphia used intravenous drugs.
PPP’s on-site HIV clinic opened more than two years ago. Sitrin said the clinic opening was “huge” for people who want to ask for help.
“We’re an access point for a bunch of different services,” Sitrin said. “So if someone finds out they’re HIV-positive, they don’t have to take the extra step and worry about going somewhere else where they might not be treated with respect.”
“As an agency, not being able to assist them in accessing those resources [before the clinic opened], when people were ready to make the changes in their lifestyle, as an agency we had a hard time helping people,” she added. “We were limited in how we were able to help.”
In addition to providing clean syringes and supplies, PPP is working to reduce overdose deaths by teaching clients how to administer naloxone, an emergency antidote for opioid overdoses. PPP doesn’t have enough naloxone — which is also known by its brand name Narcan — to distribute to all of their clients — their access to the drug often changes due to outside factors, like access to grants. In order to pick up a kit at the center, the individual must fill out a form and take the necessary training, but there still isn’t enough for everyone.
Rock McGinnis, who lives in Kensington, has been using PPP resources on-and-off for 7 years. He said the center plays an integral role in the neighborhood and saves lives by providing naloxone training and testing for diseases.
“You never know, your buddy you grew up with could be OD’ing and you have to administer a Narcan shot,” McGinnis said. “They teach you a lot of handy things you need living on the streets and in the neighborhood of Kensington.”
The Chicago Recovery Alliance, a similar harm reduction resource center with a syringe exchange, began distributing naloxone in 2001. Since then, the group has distributed more than 11,000 naloxone kits, the New York Times reported.
In addition to a lack of resources and funding, Sitrin said some of the main challenges for PPP are social barriers, like perceptions from politicians and legal issues.
“I think obviously legal issues are barriers,” she added. “I can’t tell you how many people, because they have warrants, haven’t been able to get different types of care. If you’re afraid to try and get into treatment because you have a warrant, that’s a pretty big obstacle and a sign of a backwards system.”
For Howell-Lee, volunteering at PPP has become part of her recovery. For her, harm reduction is important for a simple reason.
“Helping the people,” she said. “Helping the homeless, helping people get tested so they know their status, helping them find employment, birth certificates, social security cards, that type of stuff.”
“I can’t sleep right at night knowing there are other girls like me out there,” she added.