Patterson Playground is central to coordinated drug treatment approach

Staff and volunteers from the Peer Network of New York and BOOM! Health at Patterson Playground provide syringes and Narcan training. Photo by Trevor Boyer

South Bronx health organizations scramble for solutions to opioid abuse

Albert Aponte’s ears perked up at Patterson Playground in Mott Haven when he heard a woman declare that she was tired. Wearing an oversized red t-shirt and hunched into herself on a recent sunny Thursday morning, the woman was visiting a table at the Bronx Opioid Collective’s weekly outreach, where the convivial feel resembled a block party.

A recovery peer advocate with Samaritan Daytop Village, Aponte has been trying to encourage people like the woman in red to check into drug rehab or detox. Time is of the essence when volunteers start engaging with those curious about giving sobriety a shot, so vans are ready to pick up people within minutes, he said.

“If you wait too long, they’ll change their mind,” said Aponte, who celebrated 15 years of sobriety from drugs and alcohol in September.  

According to records maintained by the Bronx Opioid Collective, the group has referred 15 people to detox and five to rehab since it set up shop three months ago. Volunteers and staffers now gather Thursday mornings on a row of benches that partially ring the crisply maintained ballfield in Patterson Playground.

But those numbers tell only a small part of the change at the playground, the collective’s members said. 

Months ago, Patterson Playground was usually littered with spent syringes and inhabited by folks teetering on the edge of consciousness. The city’s Health Department installed a needle receptacle box at the playground in June, and another in August. Some 3,300 syringes have been collected in those boxes as of mid-October, according to the Parks Department, which empties the kiosks weekly. Some tenants of the bordering Patterson Houses NYCHA complex had initially opposed the installation, fearing that syringe receptacles would encourage people to inject illegal drugs where kids might see it. 

Aside from the 3,300 syringes left in the boxes since June, the Parks Department said that its employees have retrieved 4,800 syringes from the grounds of Patterson Playground since May 1.

Indeed, the Bronx Opioid Collective has had trouble finding syringes at the playground. Between mid-July, when the outreach went weekly, and late September, the collective plucked just 24 needles from the grounds, according to its records. Members of the collective picked up 500 needles during their preliminary monthly outreach sessions in May and June.

At the tables where groups represented the Bronx Opioid Collective’s Oct. 4 outreach, BOOM! Health, offered Naloxone training and fresh syringes; the Peer Network of New York, dispensed syringes, condoms, tampons and other toiletries; the Acacia Network gave out turkey sandwiches and advised participants on healthcare options, while offering detox and rehab for those struggling with opioid addiction; and Samaritan Village offered detox and rehab services. 

“We have always worked with clinical providers and other kinds of providers, but this on-the-ground, collaborative outreach is something that’s intentionally a new thing for all of us,” said Julia DeWalt, director of communications, advocacy and community engagement for BOOM! Health. “A coordinated effort to go out together rather than do our own thing.”

Those who have struggled with addiction their own lives, such as Aponte, run many of the tables at the outreach. 

“We believe in the benefits of peer-to-peer recovery,” said Lymaris Albors, executive vice president with Acacia Network in a statement. “Peer-led programs are powerful testimonials that treatment works and is highly effective.” 

Part of the collective’s approach is “meeting clients where they are,” said Albors. That includes providing sterile needles to those who request them, to reduce the potential harm of reusing needles with others who may have HIV or hepatitis infection. 

Pat Simpson, president of the Patterson Houses tenant association, said she sees positives and negatives in the group’s approach to outreach, adding that the needles’ users are not the people who are filling the boxes. But the community leader who opposed the installation now says she wouldn’t want them to be removed.

“I would keep it there, because anybody that’s cleaning up or the maintenance people that’s cleaning up, they can discard it in those boxes,” said Simpson.

DeWalt said that she has seen outreach participants using the boxes, despite users’ potential fear of police harassment for toting paraphernalia with drug residue. 

“Even though it is a challenge sometimes for people to use, and then dispose safely, lots of people do,” she said.

But DeWalt said that the presence of the group, combined with the public’s growing familiarity with the green receptacles, has helped keep the playground much cleaner than it was even just after the boxes were installed. 

After an invitation from the collective, Simpson participated in one of the outreaches, despite her qualms. She said she appreciates the services that the various groups offer, but is skeptical of the effectiveness of the weekly outreach.

“It’s not really a solution,” said Simpson. “Because [drug users are] still here. It’s not as bad as it was, of course not. Because the police are patrolling.” 

Aponte said that assigning credit was more complicated. “We can’t take the credit and we can’t give [the police] the credit. It’s a combination of everybody working together there unified.” 

However praise might be portioned among the groups in the collective, the police, and Parks employees — and wherever some of the playground regulars might have relocated — the grounds are relatively clear of syringes at a spot where free syringes are available every week. 

The city’s data points to a need for harm reduction for opioid users in the South Bronx. In 2017, the Bronx was the site of 342 of the city’s 1,441 drug overdose deaths. That gives the borough the largest share of overdose deaths, a number that has more than doubled since 2014, when the Bronx suffered 140 such fatalities.

The syringe receptacles are one part of the city’s $60 million Healing NYC initiative, meant as a response to the opioid crisis. So far the city has installed 24 bathroom drop boxes and 19 outdoor kiosks.

The Bronx Opioid Collective receives funds via a $500,000 allocation from the City Council’s discretionary funding to Acacia and St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction, which spend the funds on the activities of the collective and one other project. 

Visiting the Patterson Playground outreach in early October, Lt. Frantz Demorin of NYPD Community Affairs for the Bronx said he hopes to help the Fordham Road Business Improvement District create a similar outreach project for Fordham Plaza. That 1.7-acre site attracts thousands to its monthly Bronx Night Market but otherwise largely lies empty, with benches and four vacant concession stands, and attracts drug users. 

Fordham Road BID Executive Director Wilma Alonzo said she would like Fordham Plaza’s outreach to offer many of the same services of the Bronx Opioid Collective, but does not want syringe distribution.

“Personally I feel that if I was in that position [using drugs], and I find somebody provided syringes to me, I would not quit,” said Alonzo. “I would rather provide them with useful tools.” 

The Bronx Opioid Collective says it will continue to give out syringes and meet its program participants “where they are.” One of those places is Patterson Playground.