Building bridges to Utah drug users through syringe exchanges ‘shows someone really cares’

One Voice Recovery: Preventing the spread of disease can lead to dialogues with drug users who may eventually seek help.<br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of One Voice Recovery and the Volunteers Of America provide support and a needle exchange program for those in need in an ongoing intervention effort to keep the dialogue open and help people seek prevention services.

One-time intravenous drug user Patrick Rezac crouches under branches and pushes by brush as he hikes along the Salt Lake Valley’s Jordan River, packing supplies, including syringes, while seeking out homeless campers who suffer from drug addiction.

One Voice Recovery, the organization Rezac founded, seeks to build bridges with intravenous drug users in hopes they will eventually seek treatment.

It’s also a common sense approach to reducing HIV and hepatitis C infection, which can be contracted by sharing needles.

“The goal is not just to give [disease] prevention,” he said, “but to create dialogue to move people onto the road to recovery.”

One Voice Recovery exchanges new syringes for used ones to drug users, whether they are in camps or apartments or houses. Rezac and his team make 40 to 50 home deliveries a week.

Syringe exchanges are controversial in Utah. Kits that include needles and other items aimed at helping drug users safely inject illegal substances have been derided as “party packs” by House Speaker Greg Hughes. The Draper Republican and others say they encourage people to use heroin or methamphetamine.

Rezac concedes that getting politicians to see addiction as a health problem will require education and new messaging to help debunk old stereotypes. The typical addicts these days, he explained, are white men and white women between ages 35 and 55.

“We are all up against fear-based, emotional language,” he said. “When the face of addiction becomes white, heterosexual men and women, things will change.”

Beyond that, disease prevention saves millions of dollars. In the past three years, Utah has spent $25 million on treating hepatitis C patients alone. Syringe kits cost about $3, Rezac said.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “we’re all paying for this.”

Near the Jordan River on a recent Monday, Rezac and team member Alex Larson, approached Ivan Vasquez, a 58-year-old heroin user. They took personal information and made a risk assessment for Vasquez. They also provided him with clean syringes, condoms and information on other services, including treatment.

Vasquez has been addicted to heroin off and on for 30 years. He said he appreciates the efforts of One Voice Recovery because “it means staying alive and being healthy.”

Operation Rio Grande began Aug. 14 to reduce violence and drug trafficking near The Road Home shelter. The crackdown upended one syringe exchange program offered by the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, which set up twice a week on 500 West.

That program is now at the Fourth Street Clinic on Tuesdays from 3 to 5 p.m. It also is beginning an outreach program.

Rezac, on the other hand, says his program continues to grow. In the past 90 days, he and trained volunteers have given out some 11,000 clean syringes, he said. They have taken in about 8,000 used needles.

One Voice Recovery also passes out condoms in an effort to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

One Voice Recovery outreach is helped greatly by its partnership with Volunteers of America — Utah, Rezac said. VOA also tracks homeless campers and provides such items as food, water, clothing and sleeping bags. VOA is not involved in exchanging syringes.

Farther along the river, the team comes upon a woman called Jolene, 43, who said she has been homeless for six years. Her drug of choice is methamphetamine and she accepts clean syringes and other things from Rezac and Larson.

She started using meth at age 13, she said, but stopped at 27 when she became pregnant. She relapsed at age 35 and asked her cousin to bring up her son.

Rezac said there is hope for people like Jolene. The first step, he said, is showing them that someone cares.

“If someone at rock bottom is willing to take a condom or a clean syringe,” he said, “then there is hope for them.”

Another important piece of information the public should know, Rezac said, is that some 23 million Americans live in long-term recovery — that is, they overcame their addiction.

Addiction does not discriminate, he said. It can overtake people from all walks of life. Rezac was leading a successful life in the San Francisco Bay Area when he first tried cocaine. Before long, he was intravenously shooting methamphetamine.

“I did not expect to be hit that hard with addiction,” he said. “I could never imagine that I would be homeless at 35 and be sexually assaulted at gunpoint.”

Many things can lead people to drug addiction, and it can be difficult to recover — but not impossible. Rezac said he entered treatment 18 times before he stopped using drugs.

In a hidden area of trees and brush along the Jordan River, Rezac and Larson came upon a tent. Inside is a 58-year-old man named Odie who said he suffers from addiction to methamphetamine and alcohol. He’s been homeless for six months.

It’s a tough life, he said of his current situation. He is thankful, however, that Rezac’s team looks in on him. The syringe exchange is critical, he said.

“It shows someone really cares.”

More information on the program can be found at http://onevoicerecovery.org.