Atlantic City residents and harm reduction advocates hold vigil in support of saving syringe access
For Immediate Release
October 6, 2021 (Atlantic City) — Today, over 60 people held a vigil outside of Atlantic City Hall to urge the Atlantic City Council to reverse its decision to close the city’s only syringe access program (SAP).
“Harm reduction has and always will enhance the safety and well being of our clients, their families, and their communities,” said Georgett Watson, Chief Operating Officer of South Jersey AIDS Alliance.
The Atlantic City Council voted to close the Oasis Drop-In Center, operated by the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, on July 21 after silencing public testimony and against the advice of the city’s health director.
“We have the receipts to disprove all the misinformation and discrimination being uttered to justify closing syringe access in Atlantic City. We have extremely well-established science, proven by decades of fighting tooth and nail against HIV and substance use disorder,” said Mike Nees, Care Coordinator of South Jersey AIDS Alliance. “But what’s far more important: we have the courageous testimonies of the people of this city who have been holding vigil for over two months, telling the Atlantic City Council that they are gravely mistaken to close Oasis.”
Since the July vote, residents, faith and community leaders, and harm reduction advocates in support of the program have been meeting outside of City Hall every Wednesday to demand that the Council save the program.
“Oasis is a place I went to. The people at Oasis welcomed me, they helped me, they gave me the resources to survive, This is not a joke. This is life or death,” said Diane McCormick. “This program absolutely keeps people alive, and yet you want to take it away? Why take away something that helps? Why take away the privilege to have hope?”
When people have access to a syringe access program, they are five times more likely to connect to drug treatment and three times more likely to stop problematic drug use altogether.
“Every time the city takes something away from you, they’re the ones creating the havoc out here,” said Loreal (Elle Vintage) Chrisp, poet.
In Atlantic City, 37 percent of residents live in poverty and 45 percent of HIV infections are related to injection drug use.
“I’m three and a half years in recovery, I’m happily engaged, and I have my daughter back. A lot of that is thanks to Oasis,” said Matthew Diullio-Jusino, candidate for Atlantic City Council running on a platform to save Oasis. “Council President George Tibbit said he’s proud of cutting social services. Where else are social services more needed than our city?”
In the absence of action, SJAA and three Atlantic City residents who benefit from the syringe access program filed a lawsuit, and the court issued a temporary restraining order protecting the program until the next court hearing on November 12.
Only one SAP has closed in New Jersey history: the Chai Project, operated in New Brunswick in the 1990s and closed by then-Governor Christine Todd Whitman against the advice of her HIV/AIDS Commission. Diana McCague, Chai Project founder, was in attendance at today’s vigil.
“Within days of New Jersey shutting down our syringe access program in New Brunswick, I received a call from the Director of Police, with whom we had a great relationship,” said Diana McCague, former Executive Director of the Chai Project. “The police chief informed me that New Brunswick was getting complaints about many discarded syringes being found by the public after we closed, syringes that we had been helping pick up. When we closed, not only was the public made less safe, it made the city look really bad. It’s really sad that thirty years later we’re having the same fight.”
“New Jersey made deadly policy choices in the 1990s by shutting down syringe access programs rather than embracing them as essential health services,” said Jenna Mellor, Executive Director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “In 2021, with decades of evidence that syringe access programs save lives, there are no excuses. We’re losing more loved ones to overdose than ever before in New Jersey history, and this could push us into another HIV outbreak. We need more syringe access programs, not fewer.”
South Jersey AIDS Alliance is a caring and compassionate human services organization
dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS. South Jersey AIDS Alliance’s diverse and integrated programs and services span 1,500 square miles in Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, and Cumberland Counties. They serve over 4,600 people annually to meet the challenges of the rapidly changing nature of the worldwide and local HIV/AIDS epidemic. While headquartered in Atlantic City, other centers are located in Bridgeton, Camden, Rio Grande, and Vineland, NJ.