When Safe Injection Sites Close, Subway Becomes Next Best Stop
Two uptown subway stations in particular are the default go-to for users when the OnPoint NYC overdose prevention centers close at 8 p.m., locals and officials say.
Earlier this month, a young woman huddled inside a doorway on a platform at the 181st Street station along the No. 1 line, injecting heroin into her left arm and placing another syringe on the ground next to her.
“It’s not something I’m proud of — I want to turn my life around,” the homeless 20-year-old, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Lysha, told THE CITY. “But I can do my thing here without being bothered or bothering people.”
Lysha said she had earlier traveled a few blocks from the 181st Street stop to OnPoint NYC — one of the first two supervised overdose prevention centers in the country — to replenish her supply of syringes and rubber straps.
But once the drop-in center closes at 8 p.m. the 181st Street station can serve as a haven for people who want to use drugs, she said.
“If I had a place to stay, I wouldn’t be in the subway,” Lysha said. “It’s kind of like a second home.”
Officials with OnPoint NYC, the nonprofit that last November expanded its harm-reduction services at existing facilities near the 181st Street stop and the 125th Street station on the Lexington Avenue line, acknowledged the transit system can be a draw after hours.
“It’s true,” said Samuel Rivera, executive director of OnPoint NYC. “People will go to the safest place possible.”
Janno Lieber, the MTA chairperson and CEO, said in March that drug use at the 181st Street station is “a serious problem,” citing what he called “a new safe injection site nearby.”
“We understand that is something that people are doing for safety reasons and there is good policy behind it,” Lieber said. “But we can’t abide a situation where the subway becomes, when that facility closes, the second choice for where to inject, where to use drugs, and we’re working with the city to address that.”
Sarah Meyer, the MTA’s chief customer officer, tweeted in February that the centers should be open 24/7. She also noted that during the hours they are closed, hundreds of needles have been discarded on subway tracks and platforms.
The concern over drug use within the transit system comes as the number of overdose deaths in the city rose 17% in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and as the MTA has repeatedly flagged riders’ concerns over safety in the subway.
Robert Kelley, a Transport Workers Union Local 100 official who represents subway cleaners and station agents, told THE CITY that some workers are “scared” after being threatened in stations.
“When they’re doing their thing, they don’t want anyone going near them,” Kelley said of the drug users. “It’s horrible.”
The NYPD could not provide data for how many overdoses or drug-related incidents have occurred at the two stations closest to the OnPoint NYC sites.
But the MTA said it has received more complaints about drug use at the Washington Heights station than at the East Harlem stop.
FDNY statistics provided to THE CITY show that drug-related calls to the 181st Street station on the No. 1 line and the 125th Street stop along the 4/5/6 lines actually decreased between April and last December compared to the same time period for the previous two years.
There were 16 drug-related calls to the 125th Street station between last December and April, according to the FDNY. There were 64 during the same period one year earlier, statistics show — and 71 from December 2019 to April 2020.
At 181st Street, FDNY figures show there were seven drug-related calls between December 2021 and last month — up from 0 for the same timeframe one year earlier, the thick of the pandemic, but down from 13 calls between December 2019 and April 2020.
Wanting to Do More
Staff at the overdose prevention centers believe they have made an impact, and would also like to extend their hours.
“You may think we’re a part of the problem when in fact, we’re a big part of the solution,” said Kailin See, senior director of programs for OnPoint NYC.
Through May 1, the two centers have welcomed 1,133 participants, intervened in 283 potential overdoses and had to call for an ambulance five times, OnPoint NYC officials said.
“We’re very proud of those numbers,” See said.
But See noted three fatal overdoses have occurred during the hours when OnPoint NYC facilities are closed — including two at subway stations in Washington Heights.
“They close at a certain time and then there is no place for people to go, so does it make sense to look at extending the hours of those centers or staggering the hours?” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “Your need for services doesn’t end at 8 o’clock at night.”
Rivera, the executive director, said OnPoint NYC plans to eventually keep both centers open until 11 p.m., with the hope of someday providing services at all hours. They currently operate from 9 a.m to 8 p.m. on weekdays, and the Washington Heights center is open on weekends until 4:30 p.m.
“We need to be able to get funded to pay for the staff who are working specifically in the overdose prevention centers,” he told THE CITY.
The nonprofit has also proposed to the MTA putting kiosks in seven Washington Heights subway stations along the No. 1 and A lines where drug users could dispose of syringes or other paraphernalia and be directed to drop-in centers by outreach workers. It also includes an idea for having OnPoint NYC staffers sweep those stations of drug-related litter.
“The solution is sitting on their desk,” Rivera said.
A City Hall spokesperson said the city is working with the MTA and OnPoint NYC to connect people with services they need.
Drug users told THE CITY their needs can come at all hours.
George, a 52-year-old homeless drug user who goes to the East Harlem facility “three or four days a week” to get hygiene kits, supplies and food, said he would welcome expanded hours inside a place where he said “everyone is on the same page.”
“If it opens longer, people would come,” said the laid-off metal polisher, who described himself as a longtime crack cocaine user. “If it’s open 24 hours, that place would be spinning 24 hours.”
When it’s closed, he said, he sometimes seeks shelter in the subway.
“I just care about my safety, what I’m doing and where I can do what I do, then I get the f-ck out,” he told THE CITY.
The opening of an overdose prevention center near East 125th Street, which already had a high concentration of drug-treatment and methadone clinics, is emblematic of what the Greater Harlem Coalition called the “systemic saturation” of the neighborhood.
“The overdose prevention center is doing God’s work and they are a fantastic organization staffed by people who profoundly care,” said Shawn Hill, a co-founder of the coalition. “Nevertheless, despite the good that it does, it participates in the oversaturation of our community that wealthier and whiter neighborhoods are frequently not asked to shoulder.”
“Because of the density of treatment centers, it’s become a place where it’s OK to use,” said Kerry Ann King, a Harlem resident who said she saw a man overdosing on a platform at the 125th Street stop at Lenox Avenue earlier this month.
“It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people and that’s not right.”
Lysha, at the 181st Street station, said she is “just trying to make it work for me” when she does drugs in subway stations. She ends up there sometimes, she said, because police officers have told her to “go downstairs.”
An NYPD spokesperson did not comment on Lysha’s claim and asked for the names of the officers in order to confirm her story.