Roanoke center offering off-site needle exchange program will open, despite pushback

Business leaders, citizens voiced opposition to opening of Drop-In Center North

ROANOKE, Va. – Opponents of a center offering a controversial needle exchange program took their concerns to Roanoke City Council on Monday, just one week before the new center is set to open.

In the final days before the new Drop-In Center North opens on Williamson Road, it’s a last-ditch protest by some local businesses speaking out against it.

They’re concerned with how quickly things are happening and with a perceived lack of communication. Opponents of the center are asking city council to slow down the process or relocate the center.

As for organizers with the drop-in center: They say they’ve been working closely with the city, police and the health department for months, and this new needle exchange program won’t negatively impact the business community.

Northwest Hardware president Walter Vance says it could attract people who are addicted to drugs, homeless individuals and could lead to panhandling and crime.

“Our concern is that would bring and make this area here a magnet to bring in those who need those services, such as a lot of homeless, some vagrants," Vance said.

The center will be run by Roanoke’s Council of Community Services (CCS) and will offer free HIV and Hepatitis-C testing. It will also be where people sign up for the new needle exchange program.

CCS president Anne Marie Green says she understands their concerns but emphasized that no needles will be taken or handed out at the new building.

Needle exchanges will only happen out of a mobile van that will travel around the city once or twice a week, as part of the agreement they made with police and city council to bring the harm reduction program to Roanoke.

Another part of that agreement was that CCS had to open a separate location apart from the existing drop-in center located on Campbell Ave near the police station. The new, separate location, which is the Drop-In Center North, would solely register people for the needle exchange program, and not actually distribute or exchange needles.

Roanoke police chief Tim Jones had expressed concerns that his officers would have to turn a blind eye to drug use and possession of drug paraphernalia.

“(Needle exchange) will not be at the same location where the signup is. And, it is also our understanding with our landlord. It’s in our lease. That there are to be no needle exchanges at the site,” said Green.

According to the CDC, evidence shows that syringe services programs “do not increase illegal drug use or crime,” and are associated with a 50% drop in instances of HIV and Hepatitis C.

Green agrees communication could have been better, but they wanted to wait until all the funding came through before making an official announcement. And, they have to act fast because the state funding for the harm reduction program is only guaranteed through June.

Green also said the downtown drop-in center located on Campbell Ave has been there for 10 years, and nearby businesses like Tuco’s Taqueria Garaje and Beamer’s 25 have blossomed.

Both parties agree about the benefits of the needle exchange program, but they still don’t see eye-to-eye on the long term effects.

“Any resource we can give to people who are addicted to (drugs), I just think it’s for the better of the community,” said Green.

“If it can help them, more power to them. Just don’t harm us,” said Vance.

The drop-in center is planning on opening next Monday the 13th as planned.

They still have to outfit their van for the mobile needle exchange, which will also serve people who are diabetic or need needles to take hormone therapy.

Because CCS got all the approval needed months ago, the city manager says this is out of the city council’s hands, but people are still welcome to voice their concerns.

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