Mobile syringe service planned on the westside

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

The Safe Point Syringe Service Program’s mobile unit could soon begin to operate on the westside.

Representatives with the only legal comprehensive harm reduction program in Franklin County recently attended a Greater Hilltop Area Commission meeting to seek support as they try to expand their outreach services.

According to prevention specialist Carlin Gilroy, Safe Point believes the implementation of the syringe service program’s mobile unit could be beneficial to the community as recent data collected by local health officials have shown an increase of reported overdoses calls and suspected overdose deaths in the area.

“As a comprehensive harm reduction program, what we try to do through our services is to get people to use more safely and keep them healthy and alive,” he said.

Much like the Safe Point brick and mortar location that has been in operation at 1267 West Broad St. since 2019, the syringe service program’s mobile unit will offer a variety of health and education services. Although the primary function of the mobile unit will be to serve as a syringe exchange program for individuals who actively use injectable substances, the health care workers will also provide health navigation services, testing for sexually transmitted infections, risk reduction counseling, and naloxone distribution. The mobile unit can also provide wound care for its clients and it will also carry condoms to decrease the risk of sexually transmitted diseases in the community.

Gilroy said the syringe service program’s mobile unit would be stationed in the parking lot of a partner agency. The mobile unit would be at that location, which has yet to be determined, once a month for a set day and time period.

“It would be a two hour block once a month (at that location only) so that people would know that they could come and receive our services,” he said. “And that would be the only place we would be in the neighborhood.”

Gilroy said the syringe service program’s mobile unit would be able to serve 30 individuals. He estimated the individuals who access the syringe exchange service could receive upwards of 75 syringes if they return used syringes for safe disposal. The participants would also receive a sharps disposal container to collect their used syringes in order to keep the needles off the streets.

The syringe service program’s mobile unit has been operating at the Primary One Health location at 1905 Parsons Ave. on the second Friday of each month from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. The mobile unit has also been operating at Community Medical Services, 1151 S. High St., on the third Thursday of each month from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. as well as the Lutheran Social Services Health Center, 245 N. Grant Ave., on the third Thursday of each month from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Gilroy said Safe Point health care workers and volunteers often conduct community cleanup events in the areas where they operate the mobile unit. He said thus far, there has been no indication that their services have caused an increase in needles found in the neighborhoods or an uptick in criminal activity.

As a part of their operational contract with the Columbus City Council, the Safe Point Syringe Service Program’s mobile unit requires letters of support from the local area commissions and neighborhood groups to set up a location in their communities. The Safe Point representatives recently received an endorsement from the North Hilltop Neighborhood Association and were hoping the members of the Greater Hilltop Area Commission would give their support as well.

The commission said at their meeting in May they were in favor of the expanded presence of Safe Point in the community.

As a former member of the Project Open Hand board, commissioner Jennie Keplar said she has seen firsthand how blood-borne illnesses can affect entire families and communities. She said she believes the mobile syringe exchange unit could have a “positive impact” on the region.

“This could have a very positive impact not just on the people actively using drugs, but also the families on the Hilltop whose family members are using the services of sex workers along Sullivant Avenue,” she said.

Commissioner Keith Neal said he was also in support of the expanded outreach service but wanted to know if they served minors.

“We see younger kids, ages 15, 16, and 17, out here using drugs too,” he said. “What programs do you have for those not yet 18?”

Gilroy said state law does not allow Safe Point to serve individuals who are under the age of 18. However, Troy Miller, the associate director of prevention programs at Safe Point’s co-oversight organization Equitas Health, said health navigators can provide referrals to other resources but they cannot distribute supplies to anyone under 18.

With the commission giving a unanimous endorsement, their letter of support will be sent to city officials to let them know Safe Point has their approval to operate in the Hilltop. Safe Point program manager Elizabeth Onzima said the program still has a “few more steps to climb” before it can begin operating its mobile unit but they hope to be in the community soon.

“Safe Point is in discussions with a local health organization to establish and get a (memorandum of understanding) signed for that partnership in the Greater Hilltop area,” she wrote in an email. “There will be more details to come, but it is our hope to begin services before the end of summer should all go to plan.”

Safe Point was founded in 2016 through a partnership between Equitas Health and Columbus Public Health. According to Gilroy, a grant from the National Council on Mental Wellness has allowed the mobile harm reduction unit to increase its presence in the surrounding communities. The Safe Point brick and mortar location at 1267 West Broad St. is open Tuesday through Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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