ATLANTIC CITY — South Jersey’s only needle exchange program may soon be on wheels.
City Council introduced an ordinance Wednesday that would make New Jersey’s busiest sterile syringe program a mobile-access only operation. The introduction of the city ordinance was unanimously approved.
“We’re of the mindset, at this point, that having a physical, established, stationary location is not conducive to the revitalization of this town as well as the effectiveness of the program,” said Councilman Jesse Kurtz, who sponsored the ordinance.
Carol Harney, executive director of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, which operates the needle exchange program on Tennessee Avenue, spoke in opposition to the change.
“We believe that that is dramatically less effective and is not very good for our clients,” said Harney. “We’ll provide so much less services on a mobile unit than a fixed site.”
Harney said the organization was “more than willing” to move their offices out of the city’s Tourism District.
Council President Marty Small Sr. challenged the alliance’s willingness to move saying that Council and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority had proposed alternate locations but all were rejected by the organization.
Small said CRDA has offered to pay for the mobile needle exchange unit.
Several supporters of the needle exchange program spoke during a public comment period. One such speaker rejected the idea that the exchange program contributes to the city’s problems given all of the other “enterprises” available. He went on to say that Council’s “recklessness” would cost lives.
Small said no one ever claimed the needle exchange is the only contributing factor, but added that the city wants to move in a “different direction.”
“We’re doing the right thing,” he said.
Harney pointed out that 650 Atlantic City residents are infected with HIV and that no other county in South Jersey has such a high concentration.
Councilman George Tibbitt clapped back, saying “of course we have the highest numbers because everyone dumps their problems in Atlantic City.”
“Our children can’t walk the streets, our children can’t walk the Boardwalk,” said Tibbitt. “Our kids have to worry about being in the neighborhoods because everyone in the state, the region, the county, send everybody here like we’re the ones to take care of everybody’s problems. Everybody has to help and do their fair share, not dump them on Atlantic City. ... Something’s got to be done. It can’t continue to be put on the people of Atlantic City.”
Councilman Moisse Delgado said his wife used to work with HIV-infected individuals, and he supported the work the needle exchange does. But, he said society, as a whole, “needs to do better” and until that happens, the proposed change was an “opportunity” to share in both the responsibility and the solution.
Councilman Kaleem Shabazz added that Camden and Millville both had needle exchanges but shut them down. Since that time, Atlantic City has been the only location in South Jersey serving the needs of that population.
“The drug problem is not only a county, regional, national problem, it’s a crisis that we all have to take part in. It’s unfair that Atlantic City has to take all of the weight of that problem,” he said. “Atlantic City can no longer accept all of the burdens of the negative social entities. The people who live in Atlantic City ... they deserve the same quality of life as people who live in any other area.”
Discussions with Atlantic County officials or other municipalities about the mobile unit traveling outside of the city have not yet taken place, Small said.