Finding the Real America: Behind the Drug Crisis in a Black Neighborhood

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Discarded syringes strewn in the street, drug addicts sitting on the sidewalk injecting needles into their veins. These are the everyday sights Madlyn Stokely and her fellow community volunteers encounter while walking through Harlem, one of the most densely populated black communities in New York City (NYC).

Drug overdoses, especially from opioids, are causing a growing and devastating crisis in the United States. To combat the epidemic, the US Department of Health and Human Services declared a “public health emergency” in 2017. Yet in 2021, an estimated 107,622 Americans died from drug overdoses – one death every five minutes – a record, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of these, 71,238 died from synthetic opioids, also known as fentanyl.

Discarded syringes are seen on the train tracks of a subway station in the Washington Heights section of New York, U.S., November 30, 2021. /Reuters

Discarded syringes are seen on the train tracks of a subway station in the Washington Heights section of New York, U.S., November 30, 2021. /Reuters

In New York, statistics show that communities of color like Harlem have been hardest hit by the opioid crisis. Among all ethnic groups, black New Yorkers had the highest rate of overdose deaths in 2020 – 38.2 deaths per 100,000 population – and the largest increase from 2019 to 2020 of 14.2 per 100,000, according to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Harlem had the fourth highest rate of drug overdose deaths from opioids in the city. With 41.5 deaths per 100,000 population, it far exceeded the city average of 25.9 per 100,000.

Stokely, a lifelong Harlem resident in her 60s, said the neighborhood had been plagued by drug-related activity for as long as she could remember, but she had never seen people” shoot in the street” until recently. She said a few blocks in particular neighborhoods are “inundated” with drug addicts these days.

“And then also feeling your own insecurity (of) just the visual of seeing someone who really looks like they need to be in a hospital or maybe in intensive care, and you see them all day, every day. C ‘is just really sad and depressing,” Stokely, who is the president of a neighborhood non-profit organization called the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association (MMPCIA), told CGTN.

Legacy of Systemic Racism

There are several reasons behind this tragedy, but Stokely identifies one in particular. She argues that this is linked to the increase in drug treatment clinics in Harlem, which she says far exceeds the proportional level of the number of drug addicts in the neighborhood, thus driving the influx of drug addicts from elsewhere. .

With the common goal of unburdening Harlem of supersaturated opioid treatment programs, the MMPCIA of Stokely and 109 other community organizations in the area have come together and are now part of the Greater Harlem Coalition (GHC).

In August 2020, GHC submitted a data request to the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) and learned that although 6.9% of people in opioid treatment programs NYC OAAS-approved live in Harlem, more than 19% of all of these programs are located in the neighborhood.

GHC co-founder Shawn Hill said only one in four people who attend methadone clinics and opioid treatment programs in the greater Harlem area live in the local community. The remaining 75% come from elsewhere in the city. The lack of local programs in neighborhoods with large white populations and overcrowding in a community of color like Harlem, Hill believes, is due to systemic racism and is a legacy of the redlining policy that persists to this day.

Redlining was a discriminatory housing policy from the 1930s to the late 1960s. The policy ruled that people in neighborhoods deemed “unsafe” – most of them with large ethnic minority populations – were denied loans , insurance and other services. In 1938, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) drew up a “residential safety map” of New York, classifying the city’s residential neighborhoods into four levels: green for “best”, blue for “ever desirable”, yellow for “definitely in decline” and red for “dangerous”. Harlem was one of the red zones.

A “residential security map” of the borough of Manhattan in New York City by Home Owners Loan Corporation, 1938. /Public domain

A “residential security map” of the borough of Manhattan in New York City by Home Owners Loan Corporation, 1938. /Public domain

Hill pointed out that the locations of opioid treatment programs are consistent with the redlining map. Today, approximately 96% of all NYC opioid treatment programs are in residential neighborhoods classified as “definitely in decline” or “unsafe” in 1938.

Is “harm reduction” the answer?

In an effort to stem the spike in drug overdose deaths, on November 30, 2021, NYC opened the first two sites in the United States to allow supervised injection of narcotics. Drug addicts arrive with their own drugs and receive clean needles for injection. One of the sites is in East Harlem.

The decision aligns with the Biden-Harris administration’s drug policies, which place “harm reduction” as a priority. On April 21 this year, the White House released the National Drug Control Strategy, which called for improved harm reduction interventions, as well as other measures such as disrupting supply chains. in illicit drugs, building interdiction and law enforcement capacities at borders.

A customer sits in one of the semi-private booths used by people with addictions at an overdose prevention center, OnPoint NYC in New York City, January 18, 2022. /AP

A customer sits in one of the semi-private booths used by people with addictions at an overdose prevention center, OnPoint NYC in New York City, January 18, 2022. /AP

But the crisis did not subside and the new sites brought new problems to the local community. Discarded syringes were seen strewn on the sidewalk near one of the injection sites. Residents of Harlem were furious and staged a protest in December 2021 to demand a reduction in the density of drug addiction programs in the area and a healthy environment for their children.

“I feel like every borough should have a clinic, and whoever is in the borough who needs the clinic, goes there, instead of pushing everyone into one area,” he told CGTN. a resident of Harlem named Chanel Edwards.

Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said while the tougher border interdiction is working to some extent, it won’t eradicate the root cause of the drug crisis. drugs – strong domestic demand.

As long as demand persists, Vigil said, the drug will always arrive from a supplier somewhere in the world, no matter how strong the ban, and “if it’s not Mexico or Colombia, it will be another country”. Instead, Vigil believes that the treatment and education of young people are critical areas that need to be improved, as the current treatment programs in the country are not effective enough.

“What they do is they detox the individuals and then they go back to the same neighborhoods, most of the time there’s no follow-up, so they’re back on the drugs within a couple of weeks,” said Vigil told CGTN’s “The Heat.” “.

Stokely made a similar point. Instead of building more and bigger clinics, the key for the government is to learn why people end up getting addicted in the first place, she said, and then, “how do we, as a society, can help support those who want to have a different way of life.”

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