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Short Time for Needle Exchange

Landlord-tenant disputes don't usually hasten the spread of AIDS. But there's widespread concern that an eviction proceeding against the city's most popular needle-exchange program will do just that.

An apparent victim of Hollywood gentrification, Harm Reduction Central is facing eviction this month from its Cahuenga Boulevard storefront by its new landlord. The nonprofit provides drug-rehab referrals, free health services to intravenous drug users and - perhaps most importantly - a needle-exchange program. Last year, it distributed 1 million clean syringes, all in an effort to contain the AIDS virus, which can spread from person to person when drug users share dirty needles.

The clients of Harm Reduction Central are the typical Hollywood street crowd: nose-ringed punk rockers, runaway teens and other drug users who converge here on Wednesdays and Sundays for clean works and condoms. Such needle-exchange programs are badly needed because, overall, HIV-infection rates have not declined among drug-using college-age youth, noted Ferd Eggan, AIDS coordinator for Los Angeles.

The lawyer for Harm Reduction Central was more blunt. "It's critical the exchange remain open," said John Duran. "Many of the city's IV drug users will be left on the streets without a place to go."

But sources on the boulevard say that the landlord, a company called Hollywood Media Center, wants to carve a new image for its pad, that of a mecca for high-tech, movie-industry-related firms. "It's a simple case," one observer said, "of a landlord trying to make more money."

The property owner's lawyer puts it differently. "Their lease is up," said Marina del Rey attorney Victor W. Herman. "And the landlord has other uses for the property." He would not specify what those other uses are.

The matter of the lease, however, is not clear-cut. Staff at the needle exchange produced a still-active lease, apparently inked with the building's prior owner. This document, dated January 29, 1995, guarantees the nonprofit a home until the year 2001 in exchange for renovations to the formerly dilapidated space. According to director Renee Edgington, some $30,000 has been invested in the space, which now boasts an on-site clinic and original artwork by dozens of local artists.

It currently pays $1,600 a month for a 2,200-square-foot portion of the two-story building, but would be willing to pay market rates, said Edgington.

"It is unethical, what they are doing," Edgington said of the new landlord, who purchased the building in November 1996.

A judge is expected to hear the dispute in municipal court early this month. A ruling in the landlord's favor could force out the needle exchange by the end of March. The organization has not yet found another space where it could go.

The dispute with the Hollywood Media Center does not surprise AIDS activists. Needle exchanges have always been vulnerable to disruption because state law prohibits the distribution of syringes and federal law bans public funding.

On the other hand, no less than six federally funded studies have concluded that syringe exchanges slow the spread of HIV without increasing drug use. On April 1, needle-exchange programs are eligible for a new funding review at the federal level by Donna Shalala, the secretary of health and human services. Health-care providers and AIDS activists are conducting a letter-writing campaign urging her to lift the ban.

Locally, needle exchanges have been able to operate without direct government interference since 1995, when Mayor Richard Riordan gave sanction to these programs by declaring a health-care state of emergency. His action ended a series of raids by the Los Angeles police.

"It is very clear [Harm Reduction Central] has saved lives," L.A. AIDS coordinator Eggan said. "It would be a shame if that ended."


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