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Jonas Ekblom

Swedish journalist with breaking newsroom experience and prize-awarded photography. Currently reporter at Reuters in Washington D.C.

Recepient of the 2019 Overseas Press Club Scholar Award and Reuters Fellow. Top-of-class MS (Honors) graduate from Columbia Journalism School.

Previously at Swedish Public Radio (Sveriges Radio) and other outlets.

“Now that our office doors are closing – people are going to die"

“Now that our office doors are closing – people are going to die"

Originally published in The Uptowner as “Eviction Forces Corner Project Onto the Street, Prompting Fear of More Overdose Deaths”

Drug paraphernalia lined every path and ditch of Highbridge Park: old lemon and lime wedges, their juice used to dissolve crack cocaine into an injectable fluid; small bottles of distilled water for cooking heroin; needle caps from old syringes.

Clara Cordell, an outreach officer at Washington Heights Corner Project, had spent the past half hour collecting a hundred or so discarded needles in the park.

“I wouldn’t recommend anyone to come to this park,” said Cardell, who smoked crack in the same park until about five years ago when the Corner Project, which supports drug users and sex workers, helped her get clean and hired her.

Now Cardell and other staff struggle to continue their work after the organization was evicted Aug. 31 from its quarters on West 181st Street. The Corner Project is relying on vans and an RV for its outreach, but will be unable to continue its SIF (Supervised Injection Facility) program in which drug users inject themselves at project offices under staff supervision.

Clara Cardell was herself a drug user until the Corner Project helped her recover. Today she’s part of its outreach team.

Clara Cardell was herself a drug user until the Corner Project helped her recover. Today she’s part of its outreach team.

“We’ve saved over 150 lives in the last two years,” said Mark Townsend, a longtime activist who runs the Corner Project with Liz Evans, his wife.

Staff and drug users fear that without this haven, overdose deaths will continue to increase. In 2017, 1,441 people died from drug overdoses citywide, the city health department said. Overdose deaths in 2016 and 2015 were 1,425 and 942, respectively.

Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a SIFs program in May to be tested at four locations, including the Corner Project, as a way to reduce overdose deaths. It aims for a 35 percent reduction by 2022, a health department report said.

Mike Selick, Hepatitis C Training & Policy Manager at the Harm Reduction Coalition, said such programs usually meet neighborhood opposition at first, until communities see that they help users and can remove drug use from street corners and stairwells.

“When people see it, they change their minds,” he said.

A pack of clean drug paraphernalia, distributed to drug users registered with the Project.

A pack of clean drug paraphernalia, distributed to drug users registered with the Project.

Cardell meets many users during her cleanups in Highbridge Park.

“Do you have any smoker’s kits?” one asked after Cardell approached two users to offer fresh supplies.

The other requested clean needles. Both gave their personal codes, required to receive supplies, since users must register with the Corner Project to get tools like needles or pipes.

After each received a Ziploc bag of new paraphernalia, both started using its contents right away. One took the sterile needles to inject heroin; the other prepared the smoker’s kit Cardell supplied – a straight glass tube and a metal wool filter – to smoke crack.

“Everyone knows me,” Cardell said, walking the streets of Washington Heights. Many people approached her and said hi. She even got a hug and a cheerful “keep up the good work.”

Founded in 2005 as a volunteer effort, the Corner Project has grown to include outreach work from three vans, overdose prevention and education and, until recently, a spacious office on West 181st Street.

The corner of 181st Street and Broadway, where the Corner Project’s offices were located.

The corner of 181st Street and Broadway, where the Corner Project’s offices were located.

“It’s immensely sad and poignant that the eviction is happening on International Overdose Awareness Day,” said Liz Evans, its executive director, the day the organization was evicted. The company from which it was subleasing failed to pay several hundred thousand dollars in back rent, Evans said.

The office had offered a rare place of respite and relaxation for people usually shunned by society. Even as departing workers removed the last of the ceiling spotlights and vacuumed the gray carpet, clients got some undisturbed sleep in office leather armchairs.

Old syringes; needle caps; water containers. Only some of all the drug paraphernalia on the ground in Highbridge Park.

Old syringes; needle caps; water containers. Only some of all the drug paraphernalia on the ground in Highbridge Park.

But some Corner Project neighbors are happy to see the organization leave.

“I can appreciate what they do, but it’s bad for business,” said Nancy Vega, a sales clerk at the MZ Dollar convenience store, a couple doors down.

“Customers are afraid,” said Ryan Floris of the neighboring Lens Lab Express. He said that Corner Project visitors often spill onto on the street, sometimes fighting or even using drugs.

Still, the organization has attracted wide community support. Steve Simon, chair of the health committee at Community Board 12, which oversees the Washington Heights area, called the Corner Project’s eviction “unfortunate.”

“They are doing the work almost no one else does,” he said.

Evans said the community board has been extremely helpful. The biggest hurdle the organization faces is rent, she said.

The Corner Project’s offices were a rare place of respite for people usually shunned by society.

The Corner Project’s offices were a rare place of respite for people usually shunned by society.

Selick of the Harm Reduction Coalition said that the struggle for good office space is common among such nonprofit organizations. Besides facing high rent, they are sometimes also denied leases because of their clientele.

“Lots of landlords found out what we wanted to do and said we couldn’t rent from them,” said Selick about his own experience with another drug program.

The Corner Project has looked at three or four locations for a new office, but signing a lease and moving in could take four to six months, said the organization’s Townsend.

Until then, the Corner Project will use its three vans already in service and modify a 2009 Winnebago RV.

“We are already a mobile organization,” Townsend said.

The RV and the vans will offer some of the services provided at the office, like needle exchanges and medical exams, but far fewer than those provided at West 181st Street.

“The main issue is that we won’t have any bathrooms, showers or laundry,” said Townsend.

And clients will no longer have a safe space for relaxation and for safer, supervised injection.

With nowhere to go, many Corner Project clients are left to roam the streets. Clara Cardell and others fear that will lead to more overdose deaths as opioid users are forced into the shadows, where the chances of discovering and stopping an overdose are slim.

“Now that our office doors are closing – people are going to die,” she said.

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