HUDSON FALLS — A raucous community meeting on Thursday night in Hudson Falls prevented the Alliance for Positive Health from sharing information with concerned residents about a proposed syringe exchange program in the village.
The highly-charged crowd of nearly 170 attending a last-minute meeting called by Deputy Mayor Bob Cook expressed fears about the syringe exchange and their perceived danger of intravenous drug users coming into their community.
“This is a potentially violent culture with unpredictable behaviors,” said Cook, adding that businesses and restaurant bathrooms will be at risk if “heroin addicts” come to Hudson Falls.
But unrestrained emotions kept the health care provider from addressing community concerns, despite repeated attempts by Alliance administrators.
Regional Director Diana Aguglia, who runs the Plattsburgh and Ticonderoga syringe exchange programs for Alliance, brought detailed information about what syringe exchanges do, how they operate, statistics about why Hudson Falls was chosen, and letters of support, including one from the Plattsburgh Chief of Police, to the meeting.
“They never got to hear this,” Aguglia said, adding that she has never been disrespected in a community before and that Plattsburgh and Ticonderoga are very supportive of the program and locations. “We have never had bad publicity — no drama, no hurtful comments. The communities we are in have been wonderful.”
According to Plattsburgh Chief of Police, the syringe exchange program has helped the city.
“It is my pleasure to write a letter commending the Alliance for Positive Health in its endeavors to keep the streets free from harmful syringes and reducing the risk of contamination to the public,” wrote Ken Parkinson, chief, in a letter Aguglia brought to the meeting, but did not have an opportunity to share. “We have seen a marked decrease in the amount of discarded needles thrown away in a haphazard manner in places that are readily available to the public.
“(Syringe exchange programs) also benefit the communities in which they operate by keeping discarded, used syringes off the streets ... and serving as a gateway to engage difficult to reach individuals,” Parkinson wrote.
Misconceptions about IV drug users and syringe exchange
Hudson Falls was designated as a moderate — 50 to 79 percentile — injection drug use risk area, according to the Department of Health.
“Those numbers are older and the problem is much worse now,” said Aguglia.
Glens Falls Hospital reported 17 cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome in 2015; nine were reported in 2014. Washington County had a 357 percent increase in emergency room visits for overdose from 2010 to 2014; Washington County had a 43 percent increase in opiate associated drug poisoning deaths during that same time.
“The IV drug users are already there,” Aguglia said. “You want (syringe exchange sites) to be in an area with the greatest need. What happens with syringe exchange, the community gets services to help them. ”
But Cook painted a dark and sinister image of heroin users, during Thursday's meeting.
“When I heard them talk about fears of riding in the same elevator, the comment startled me,” Aguiglia said. “I am sure there were people in the room struggling with addiction. The comments said last night were very damaging and hurtful. It further stigmatizes addiction and doesn’t get people into treatment ... These are people — they need support.”
Aguglia also said that she believes the concerned residents don’t really understand how syringe exchange programs work.
“I think they believe clinics run 24-7 with people dropping off needles all night long. In Plattsburgh, we are open three days a week,” she said. “They come, get their services and leave. They know the police know. They don’t shoot up here or near here. They are too afraid of getting the place shut down and they respect it.”
“Our mission is to stabilize people, keep them healthy and keep them alive,” she said. “Our staff is really good at it.”
At Thursday's meeting, Bill Faragon, Alliance executive director, tried to explain that the Alliance for Positive Health’s Project Exchange provides new sterile syringes and other injection supplies, safe disposal of used syringes, and opioid overdose prevention.
Additionally, Project Exchange offers education and information on safer injection techniques and safer sex practices; referrals to HIV, sexually transmitted infections and hepatitis testing; health care and substance abuse programs; free Narcan training and kits for opioid overdose prevention; and replacement Narcan kits.
It’s the beginning, not the end
Beyond fears of increased crime and heroin users loitering in Hudson Falls hallways, at issue for Cook and others was the proposed Main Street location for the clinic and his belief that Alliance for Positive Health had intentionally left the village out of site discussions.
“This was an underhanded attempt to sneak this program into the community,” Cook said. “This was avoidable — make a call, send an email, send a text and say, ‘we would like to talk with you.’”
Nonetheless, an Alliance clinic director, no longer working for the provider, secured 17 letters of support from local hospitals, health care providers, recovery and treatment programs, a church and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro.
During Thursday’s meeting, three groups — the Washington County Sheriff, Friends for Recovery and the Council for Prevention — said they recently rescinded their letters because Alliance was being deceptive and trying to hide the location.
Katherine Chambers of the Council for Prevention said that they had not been at the table and the council was not informed about the location.
“I assume they are talking about the Hometown vs. Heroin meetings. He (the former employee) was attending monthly meetings and when he left, it took us five months to find a new director, but we still made three out of five meetings,” she said. “It wasn’t true that we weren’t at the table.”
Aguglia said that when the former employee secured the letters of support, they did not know where the location would be, except that they wanted it somewhere in Washington or Warren County.
Additionally, Alliance has run a health care clinic on La Cross Street in Hudson Falls for 10 years. And because they had outgrown that space, they began looking for a new clinic location. When they found the space at 124 Main Street, they thought perhaps that would be a good location for the syringe exchange.
But before they could talk to the community about the location, Alliance had to make sure the Main Street site met health clinic regulations, she said.
“The next step was getting community support and an advisory board,” she said. “You don’t start a community advisory board until you know about the location.”
At the meeting, Alliance outside counsel, Robert Stout Jr. tried to explain this to the unruly crowd, but they kept shouting.
“This is just the beginning, this is not finalized,” Stout said.
And despite Cook’s accusations of deceptive practices, zoning laws prevent such actions without public hearings and public comment.
Paul Hancock, a meeting attendee, rose in support of Alliance.“I know these people, they are people of integrity,” he said, adding that syringe exchange programs are supported by the American Medical Association.
But a man in the audience screamed a verbal attack at Hancock, forcefully shutting down further comments.
The Council for Prevention Executive Director Amanda West said on Friday that they had rescinded their letter because they had not heard from Alliance about the location and they do not approve the location.
West was under the impression Alliance had already signed a 10-year lease on the site.
According to Bill Faragon, Alliance executive director, the lease is contingent on community approval of the location.
West said on Friday they would reconsider their position for a different location.
“We support their mission, just not that location,” she said.
The next step is for Alliance to present preliminary information to the Hudson Falls Planning Board on Feb. 21.