At 6:30 sharp on a Thursday night in mid-October, a crowd gathered quickly at the entrance to 6769 Lexington Ave., a half-block east of Highland in Hollywood. Aside from the shuffling of feet and the usual sniffles brought on by the plummeting temperatures of an early fall evening, there was little commotion until a couple of minutes past the half-hour, when a skinny guy in a watchman’s cap and overalls began to bang insistently on the door. ”Hey, man, you guys gotta open up!“ he shouted. A minute or two later, a young woman with a ring of keys came downstairs, and the ”clients,“ as they‘re called by the volunteers of Clean Needles Now, filed into a line that stretched up the stairs and spilled into the tiny space where volunteers manned a few folding tables.
A woman sat down at one of the tables to answer a basic set of questions: Birth date, which drug she injects, whether she’s tried the new ”one-hit kit,“ which comes complete with a sterile cooker and gauze. About half the clients are heroin addicts, according to volunteer Shoshanna Scholar; another 30 percent inject speed. ”We‘re starting to see people injecting crack cocaine, too,“ she said, ”which is really bad, because crack has to be cut with some sort of acid.“ Some people use lemon juice, which often leads to serious infection. ”So we give them pharmaceutical-grade ascorbic acid instead. It’s cleaner and safer.“
The woman at the intake table was missing her front teeth. ”I need to know something,“ she told Peggy Roman-Jacobson, the resident legal advocate for Clean Needles Now. ”Can my employer refuse to let me work because I lost my dentures? Is that legal?“
”I suppose it is,“ said Roman-Jacobson apologetically. ”They can‘t discriminate against you for other things, but they can still be jerks.“
At the back of the room, Terry Hair, a small woman in pigtails and sneakers, rushed about opening boxes of needles and emptying bags of candy into bowls. ”One cc or a half?“ she shouted to someone in the line.
”Twenty-seven one cc,“ answered a young man who arrived holding his boyfriend’s hand.
”Do you need anything else?“
”Yeah. Condoms. Banana-flavored.“
”This is like the morning rush in a restaurant,“ said Hair. ”It‘ll settle down in an hour.“ She was right: By 8 p.m., the place was quiet.
A pharmacist by trade, Hair is the current executive director of Clean Needles Now, a harm-reduction effort founded in 1991 by a group of local activists to arrest the spread of blood-borne illnesses among people who inject drugs. The program has been funded by the city of Los Angeles since 1994, when Mayor Richard Riordan, spurred on by a precipitous rise in hepatitis C and HIV infections among the 100,000-plus injection-drug users in Los Angeles County, declared a citywide state of emergency, allocating funds for needle exchange and revising the legal status of the program to ”illegaltolerated“ (needles obtained from other sources are illegal under the federal paraphernalia law).
Needle-exchange programs used to be controversial; Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton administration’s drug czar, turned down then–Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala‘s 1998 request for federal funding by claiming clean-needle distribution ”sent the wrong message to children.“ But such bizarre logic has mostly been routed from the medical establishment. Needle exchange is now regarded as a necessary adjunct to the overburdened public health system, where injection-drug users often feel unwelcome. (Clean Needles Now maintains a grisly series of photographs called an ”abscess gallery“ to document the clients who have come in with untreated sores.) Needle exchange also makes it feasible for injection-drug users to safely dispose of used syringes, many of which would otherwise end up in trash cans.
Clean Needles Now currently operates in nine locations in Los Angeles, including curbside sites at Pico-Union and in Venice and indoor sites on Skid Row, working in concert with other social-service nonprofits such as Common Ground and the Los Angeles Catholic Workers. The Hollywood outpost of the needle exchange has been operating eight hours a week, on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons, since April of 2001 above the Friends Research Center, where it relocated after having been ousted from its storefront location on Cahuenga Boulevard by a gentrifying landlord. But this particular Thursday would be the last here, too: Thanks to an effort by proponents of the Hollywood secession movement, including former Hollywood VOTE president Ferris Wehbe, the landlord of the building had ordered Clean Needles Now to leave.
”It was either that or face a long legal battle, which nobody wanted to do,“ said Hair. ”But if these people think that getting rid of the needle exchange is going to turn Hollywood into a Disneyland with no homeless people or poverty, they’re dreaming.“
According to Hair, the trouble began less than four months ago, when Kevin Butler wrote a story in the Los Angeles Independent noting that the needle exchange was located within 600 feet of Wehbe‘s Little Red Schoolhouse day-care center, a possible violation of a Los Angeles statute about the location of drug-treatment facilities. Needle-exchange programs are not technically regarded by the law as drug-treatment facilities, but Butler investigated anyway, interviewing residents and merchants about a perceived ”dramatic upsurge in drug use, prostitution and drug-related crimes.“
The story ran in July, three weeks after the Los Angeles City Council voted to correct a clerical error that mistakenly dropped $80,000 from the needle exchange’s $260,0000 annual grant — a formality that Hair blames for alerting the Hollywood secessionists not only to the presence of the needle exchange, but also to its funding source. Suddenly, the needle-exchange program became an emblem of City Hall‘s interference in Hollywood. ”That’s when all hell broke loose,“ said Hair. ”When the newspaper story came out, everyone was asking, ‘What happened?’ But nothing had happened at the needle exchange. Everything had been completely low-key. All that happened was that we got on somebody‘s radar, and they said, ’Hey, let‘s use this.’“
Wehbe, who said he‘s been watching the building since September 2001, sees it differently: ”For years we’ve been battling drug dealers and prostitution, and the minute we get it under control, we‘re right back where we started, with needles on the street and people coming to the neighborhood trying to buy drugs. It’s not fair.“
But Hair argues that Clean Needles Now is not bringing anyone to the neighborhood, but rather serving the people who are already there. ”It‘s not like we go to Beverly Hills and put up a needle exchange. Our sites are where the clients are.“ And Hollywood, said Hair, ”has always been our biggest site. About a quarter of our clients are homeless street kids, but the rest live and work in Hollywood. They have jobs there, they have cars. And they come and get their stuff and leave.“
”Well,“ said Wehbe, ”I live in the neighborhood, and I don’t recognize any of them.“
Since its eviction, Clean Needles Now has made a presentation to the Los Angeles Free Clinic on Hollywood near Gower Avenue to house its facility within the clinic — a solution that would satisfy even Wehbe, who maintains that he‘s not opposed to needle exchange in theory — he just wants it housed in a clinical setting.
According to Chuck Ellis, spokesperson for the clinic, the proposal is under consideration. ”We’ll look at it to see whether it fits within our mission,“ he said. In the meantime, Hair and crew have relocated to a deserted stretch of Citrus Avenue, where they dispense supplies and advice out of the back of a black Ford Explorer.
”It‘s not so bad,“ said outreach worker Marissa Axelrod, who as recently as 20 months ago was a client herself. ”If it rains, we’ll huddle together under a tarp.“