St. Luke Church in Hampden. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

As North Baltimore’s tourist-drawing Hampden neighborhood struggles to confront its elephant in the room of opioid addiction, the Rev. Jim Muratore, of St. Luke’s Church on The Avenue, has proposed tackling the scourge with a tried-and-true, if somewhat unconventional solution: a needle exchange.

“It has worked elsewhere, and has made a difference,” Muratore told Baltimore Fishbowl about an hour before he addressed a packed Hampden Community Council meeting Monday night.

“The most consistent thing people say is that it’s enabling, and there may be an element of truth to that, but if you turn the needles in to receive new ones…then you’re reducing the number of needles on the ground, and you’re reducing the number of people that may be infected by transmittable diseases. That’s the primary reason the whole thing was started in the first place.”

Under his plan, St. Luke’s would become the 17th site in the city to host a Community Risk Reduction Services clinic where injection drug users could exchange dirty needles for clean ones. While CRRS operates a roving van that comes to most of its 16 host neighborhoods, Muratore said he and others couldn’t find a suitable corner in the “condensed” residential locale, so he decided to open up his church’s doors.

The exchange inside the sanctuary would run every Wednesday from 9:30-11:30 a.m. The setup and timeframe, which St. Luke’s, the community council’s board, Baltimore police, the Hampden Village Merchants Association, the Hampden Family Center and others have agreed upon, is designed to keep any crowds from building outside, and to stave off any interaction between people making an exchange and children attending the adjacent Hampden Elementary/Middle School.

“We’re in support of it and they’ve discussed hours with us, and we’ve both agreed that drop-off times and pick-up times are not great,” Hampden EMS parent-teacher organization president Mary Bruno said at the meeting, responding to a question raised by Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. “That’s why we [chose] the middle of the day.”

Muratore and others stakeholders have been discussing and planning the needle exchange since October 2017. The program at St. Luke’s would have begun tomorrow, but Muratore and others delayed so they could better inform and work with neighbors on implementation. No start date has been set.

“Clearly there needs to be some more outreach done,” Muratore said before the meeting.

The progressive pastor joined Lisa Parker, a health program administrator with the city health department, and Dr. Richard Bruno, a family doctor who works in Belair-Edison, to field questions Monday night. Feedback largely wavered between subdued skepticism and outright support for the idea. Only one woman spoke out openly against the idea, saying St. Luke’s is “going crazy,” while others complained about public drug use and stray needles. Clarke asked who would be responsible for managing the program, and other attendees asked what would happen with the collected used needles.

Parker explained the health department handles management and needle-collection, and adjusts its hours accordingly based on client demand. She offered a rundown of CRRS’ history: The program has been operating in Baltimore since 1994 and has become a state and national model for needle and syringe exchanges, she said, achieving an 85 percent return rate for its syringes, and distributing 1.5 million of them last year alone.

The rate of HIV infections in Baltimore attributable to injection drug use has fallen from 64 percent in 1992 to just 8 percent in 2016, according to a handout from the health department.

CRRS only opens a new site when approached by a neighborhood, Parker said, and staff closely track how many needles and syringes they collect. The program also offers an array of other services beyond paraphernalia-collection, including STD and pregnancy testing and reproductive female health services.

Rev. Jim Muratore speaks at a Hampden Community Council meeting on Feb. 26. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Responding to a neighbor who asked how potential participants would find the exchange, Parker noted there are “no big signs” advertising the service, but rather staff reach out directly to users: “We try to be in the community, but we also try to be invisible in how we’re actually in the community.”

Addressing another woman who asked how CRRS handles stray needles—a concern raised by multiple others—Parker said staff patrol the surrounding areas to pick up discarded hardware, “so our kids aren’t playing on playgrounds with dirty syringes. That’s a core component of our provided services.”

Others offered fervent support. A social worker stood up at the end to say she’s “incredibly thankful” for how needle exchanges have helped reduce the spread of infections among users, particularly where she works.

Addressing skepticism from her neighbors, Hampden resident Crystal Furlong preached a need for them to view addiction as a disease, rather than something isolated and blameworthy.

“We have to do things to change the mindset of the community. I don’t particularly like that [the exchange] is being in my church, but I am supportive of it,” she said.

Muratore noted his church already hosts two recurring Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and the needle exchange would provide yet an additional resource for injection drug users.

He said his primary goal is “fostering unity and support and an environment of encouragement for people struggling from addiction,” and asked his neighbors to embrace that ideal as well, noting plenty of people volunteer at soup kitchens and nursing homes, and “this is also a community that needs support.”

He explained he shares their concerns, and is “nervous” about getting the program started and seeing how it fares. But he’s optimistic about saving users from some of the health risks of injectable drugs.

“I’m a person of faith,” he told the crowd. “I believe that if we do that, if we make that conscious effort to show hope, that it’ll spread.”

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...