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Needle exchange controversy divides community - December 2005

Myles Formby reports in The Southside News 4/2005 p3 that The future of the planned needle exchange in Redfern is unknown as residents and community groups wait for the findings of an independent community consultation conducted in mid-July.

The consultation was undertaken at the behest of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore after Redfern residents and community groups opposed the needle exchange and medical centre planned for Lawson Street.

The residents objected to the location of the centre next to a house with young children and directly across the road from Redfern railway station.

The Lord Mayor's spokesperson, Andrew McKenzie, says "Clover supports a health facility of this nature in Redfern but not necessarily this location."

The exchange has been planned by a NSW Government body, Sydney South West Area Health (SSWAH), to replace the needle bus which supplies clean needles to addicts and operates in the area known as The Block.

Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) Project Manager, Peter Valilis, did not want the needle exchange or bus anywhere on The Block.

"We don't have too many local addicts left around here. We've actually evicted a lot of drug dealers so the drug trade is almost down to nothing now. The needle bus and, the needle exchange are like a honey-pot. They attract people into this area," he says.

Valilis would prefer to see the exchange built nearby but well off The Block and suggests Australian Technology Park as a possible site.

Mick Mundine, CEO of AHC, agrees with Valilis, arguing that the area already had enough needle exchanges. "We've got plenty of places that give out needles within walking distance," he says.

Dr Robert Graham, who works in the Drug and Alcohol service at St Vincent's Hospital, says it is not a matter of laziness.

"I do know that you need to locate needle programs where people are. If you locate them even 500 metres or 11cm away people just won't bother going," he says.

John Stapleton, journalist and Lawson Street resident, describes the medical professionals who support the centre as scaremongers.

"The spread via needle use of HIV has not been anything like what the 1980s' terror programs were suggesting," he says.

However, Dr Graham attributes the low rate of HIV among drug users directly to needle centres and exchanges.

"We've been lulled into a false sense of security because we started needle exchange programs 20 years ago and we averted an HIV epidemic among injecting drug users. And that's a public health triumph which is often forgotten about – we've probably saved about 3000 lives. In New York, where they didn't have an exchange program for a long time, at one stage 90 per cent of injecting drug users had HIV," he says.

Southside News spoke to Joe, a heroin addict who lives on The Block and gets his needles from the bus run by SSWAH.

Joe contracted Hepatitis C in jail from sharing a needle. He says most of the users of the needle bus were from the Redfern-Waterloo area so he is worried about what effect closing the bus would have on the urea's addicts. He says that when the van was around the local addicts did not share needles.

Dr Andrew Byrne, a Redfern drug and alcohol practitioner, says: "You have to feel sorry for the guy next door, but the centre is needed. Needle services are cost-effective, they don't encourage drug use, they prevent HIV and Hepatitis C and should be available at reasonable locations for drug users."

Craig Kentell is, literally, the guy next door. He has two young daughters and is also the spokesperson for RED Alert, a community group fighting the needle exchange.

"I've got a rear-lane access (to my home) and they would like to run an overdose service from the rear lane, which will bring users back to the lane. I want my children to be able to be free out there on the footpath. I don't think that they should be imprisoned in our home. This is urban destruction," he says.

The community consultation for the exchange was run as a series of focus groups organised by The Miller Group, an independent social issues consultancy.

Melissa Roberts, spokesperson for SS WAH, would not comment on the Lawson Street centre until the public release of the focus groups' results which she says "would be available in the very near future."

The planned exchange, though close to the southern border of The Block, is not on land owned by the AHC and is part of a tract of land recently deemed "state significant," which brings it under the control of the Redfern Waterloo Authority.

This means the go-ahead for the exchange must come from state MP Frank Sartor, who is both Minister for Planning and Redfern and Minister in charge of the Redfern Waterloo Authority.