Beyond “Clean”

Harm reduction in the 4-0: an alternative to the stigmatization and criminalization of drug use

Her rolling cart laden with brooms, mops, cleaning solution, and latex gloves, Mildred “Mimi” Contes moves through the halls of BOOM!Health harm reduction center with a sense of purpose. Today she is an employee, but arrived years ago seeking much more than a job. Contes first walked through BOOM!’s doors in Mott Haven as a young woman addicted to heroin. She would come to BOOM! to pick up clean syringes through the center’s needle exchange program. Contes says she no longer uses heroin, but she still spends most of her days at the center, keeping it clean and chatting with staff and visitors. “I love this place,” Contes tells a co-worker. “This place saved my life.”

The South Bronx is the epicenter of the overdose epidemic in New York City. In 2o15, 146 people died from opioid overdose in this neighborhood alone. That’s 13 deaths for every 100,000 residents. In fighting drug addiction most local, state, and federal agencies criminalized drug users, pushing them underground into unhygienic and unsafe “shooting galleries.”

No place better illustrates this problem than an abandoned rail bed next to St. Ann’s Avenue in the Mott Haven nieghborhood in the South Bronx. It has become a refuge for people to inject drugs away from police harassment and out of the community’s sight.

Here in the South Bronx, residents and advocates, including recovery support peers at BOOM!, are working to break down the stigma surrounding drug use and help break the cycle of addiction. They work to offer basic healthcare and human services to those in the neighborhood in need, including warm showers, counseling, and testing.

BOOM! was formed in 2013 as a merger between CitiWide Harm Reduction and Bronx AIDS Services, and aims to reduce the negative health impacts of drug use. Its most widely recognized strategy, the needle exchange program that provides sterile syringes to users, has proven to effectively reduce the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C.  

Former addicts, like Contes, say harm reduction strategies can change lives. Contes struggled with addiction, and survived physical violence and homelessness for more than two decades until BOOM! helped bring her life back from the margins.

“I’m here because God is good,” Contes says. “I got high in the South Bronx. I got clean in the South Bronx. I’m working in the South Bronx. And I’m gonna stay in the South Bronx.”