Shooting in the Dark 

Thursday, May 22 2003

A neighborhood-action group has blocked a needle-exchange program’s latest effort to open up shop in Hollywood, this time at the L.A. Free Clinic.

“They put a lot of energy into defaming needle exchange,” said Terry Hair, executive director of Clean Needles Now, a city-funded program to halt the spread of hepatitis C and AIDS among people who inject drugs. “It is a very small number of people impacting the lives of hundreds of people.”

For six months, the needle exchange had been looking for a permanent home in Hollywood. Last year, it lost its lease on Lexington Avenue after a Hollywood Independent article mentioned it was operating within 600 feet of a day-care center. The pro–Hollywood secession movement led the campaign at that time against the needle program. Since then, Clean Needles Now has been dispensing needles and supplies out of the back of a Ford Explorer, losing a third of its clients, who are less inclined to use its roadside service for fear of harassment by cops.

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The L.A. Free Clinic on Sunset Boulevard agreed to house the needle exchange two days a week as long as neighbors supported the project.

They didn’t. In March, the Franklin–Hollywood Hills Action Team, a small but vocal group, was notified by LAPD Officer Maria Gholizadeh that the needle exchange planned to move into its neighborhood. Fearing the needle exchange would encourage drug use and prostitution, the group made fliers and threatened to picket.

“There is a heavy concentration of social services already in the area,” said group president Fran Reichenbach.

Proponents of the needle program say that Councilman Eric Garcetti did not fight hard enough for the city project and wondered how an LAPD officer could so vocally oppose it. Officer Gholizadeh says all she did was alert the neighborhood group about the program. “I was told by my superiors that it is a City Council–ordained program and I should stay out of it. I stayed out of it, and they were able to pressure Garcetti into not putting it into L.A. Free Clinic,” she said.

Garcetti’s office denied the allegation that the councilman did not do enough. “We back the concept of needle exchange,” said Josh Kamensky, the councilman’s spokesman. “It wasn’t a city decision. It was something between Clean Needles Now and the L.A. Free Clinic. If L.A. Free Clinic was behind the needle exchange, we would have continued the discussion.”

In fact, the Free Clinic gave in to neighborhood pressure and pulled the proposal. “They were threatening pickets that would negatively impact our other patients,” said the Free Clinic’s Chuck Ellis. “We decided to back off. We have been there for 10 years. You can’t bring our clients into controversy — it makes them go back farther into the shadows.”

Reach the writer at cpelisek@laweekly.com

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