On the Front Line in the Battle Against Heroin

The Boom! Health outreach team loaded up the van with the usual supplies: condoms, clean syringes, and HIV and Hepatitis C testing kits. But on a freezing cold February morning in the Bronx, this trip would be slightly different from the team’s usual trips out in the van to hand out health supplies on the street.

For this run, the team had a specific goal: A peer—someone who comes to Boom! Health for drug counseling—had tipped them off about a potential heroin-user encampment under a bridge, in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx off Grand Concourse. “We want to see if there are any individuals staying under there,” said Miguel Calderon, who leads the outreach team. Boom! Health is a multifaceted drug use prevention and harm reduction organization. Part of its mission in the South Bronx is to find addicts and test them for HIV and Hepatitis C, and offer clean syringes.

He expected to see evidence of heroin use near the bridge and he did. Miguel climbed through a hole in the fence of a basketball court and down a small hill onto a path that ran above a train track. On the ground was a cluster of needles and bright orange syringe caps. He continued to walk along the bank towards a tunnel. Between him and the drop down to the track was an iron fence. He climbed through the fence to look down towards the track, where he saw several mattresses. For anyone to get down to the site they must make a treacherous climb down a slippery rock face. Not only was this area a spot for addicts to congregate, but the signs indicated that there may be people living here too.

Though usually hidden, there are many such encampments in New York City— refuges for addicts, out of the public’s view. Heroin use has soared in New York City in recent years, as it has through the country. Overdoses increased by more 50% between 2010 and 2014, according to the New York City Department of Health.

There was no one at the camp when the team visited—hardly surprising in the bitterly cold temperatures. But the team promised to come back with kits for on-the-spot HIV and Hepatitis C testing and to safely dispose of the used syringes. With heroin use on the up, Miguel’s team face a constant struggle to prevent users from contracting infectious diseases—and doing themselves even more harm.