Housing Works Pushes for Overdose Prevention Centers Amid Changing Administration


The Ginny Shubert Center for Harm Reduction located on West 37th St.

The Ginny Shubert Center for Harm Reduction on West 37th Street in Midtown. Photo: Sirena He

Just two weeks into her term as governor, Kathy Hochul marked the state’s first ever Overdose Awareness Day in September. The event took place amid renewed calls for the state to make good on its one-time promise to bring the Overdose Prevention Center program to New York.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the already numerous inequalities impacting the most marginalized New Yorkers – the factors leading to preventable overdose deaths are no exception,” local non-profit housing advocacy group, Housing Works wrote in its Aug. 24 letter to the governor.

Mayor de Blasio announced a pilot version of the Overdose Prevention Center Program in 2018. Former Governor Cuomo later announced his support, but the plan stalled during the legislative session and never came to be. 

The initiative looks to expand four existing New York City syringe exchange programs into supervised injection facilities. Program advocates said doing so would allow opioid users to safely consume drugs in a clean environment, with access to on-site counselors and medical professionals. Advocacy groups, including No Overdose New York, known as NO OD NY, and Housing Works said the program is needed more urgently than ever.

“Throughout the pandemic, roughly 5,100 New Yorkers statewide died of overdoses,” Housing Works continued in its letter. “Help New York State move past the stigma and fear of those in power and provide real, life-saving services to the people we care for who use drugs and deserve to live a full and healthy life,” it said. The letter was co-signed by 60 other advocacy groups, including NO OD NY, and more than 190 individuals. 

“During her first speech as governor, she mentioned that she has personal experience with losing her nephew to an overdose. She’s shown that she has compassion for the community. But someone could have compassion for families and have nothing but family care and recovery care plans, rather than harm reduction plans,” said Jennifer Johnson-Avril, director of advocacy communications at Housing Works.

With the legislation stalled, Housing Works opened the Ginny Shubert Center for Harm Reduction on West 37th Street in Midtown in 2019. The center’s employees said it already provides many supportive services including free showers, clean syringes, and mental health counselors. But, it lacks the ability to supervise clients during injection and provide medical attention, which the legislation would allow. 

Jesus Aponte is a former client, turned outreach worker at Housing Works. He said his work takes him from 23rd Street to Columbus Circle, talking to people he feels could benefit from the services the Shubert Center offers. “The more users get educated about harm reduction, the more they will break down the epidemic of opioid use. I used to be homeless 12 years ago. I had an accident, was paralyzed for two years and became heavily reliant on drugs. I got access to therapy here that helped break me out of a negative cycle of depression,” he said. 

But, people who work in the area said some visitors are concerned by the space. Rosa Martin, a guest service agent at the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, located next to the center, said she is worried about the public drug usage she sees near work. “You see people using a lot in this area. I would think this supervised facility would bring more homeless people here,” said Martin. 

“Many of our guests are tourists. They are concerned about what they see next door. They ask us if it is safe here, and we try not to tell them too much information about the center, because we don’t want them to worry,” said Angel Diaz, a Courtyard service agent.

New York Senator Patrick Gallivan introduced a bill earlier this year that looks to prohibit the creation of Opioid Prevention Centers. In a statement to the Midtown Gazette, he said, “it is important for the state to identify policies and procedures to help those struggling with addiction and to hold those responsible for the spread of this epidemic accountable. However, the use of supervised injection sites is not one of them.”

Advocates, however, said the centers would benefit not only clients, but the whole community. “These facilities don’t increase drug use. They reduce open syringe disposal and public drug usage. Everything people are concerned about would be addressed by implementing Overdose Prevention Centers,” said Ryan Thoresen Carson, executive director of NO OD NY. “It is a major moment right now with this change in administration. We will continue holding Hochul accountable.”

“The health commissioner has the power to authorize Overdose Prevention Centers as well as the governor,” said Johnson-Avril, adding that with the recent appointment of Dr. Mary Bassett to replace Dr. Howard Zucker as state health commissioner, Housing Works is hopeful the plan will finally be pushed forward.

If authorized, New York would become only the second state in the country to launch the Overdose Prevention Center Program. Earlier this year, Rhode Island became the first. The program is set to take effect there in March 2022.

The governor has not yet responded to Housing Works’ letter or to the Midtown Gazette’s request for comment.