Needle exchange and the geography of survival in the South Bronx

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This paper explores the position of needle exchange programmes (NEPs) in the " geography of survival" in the South Bronx neighbourhood of New York City. Stemming the spread of HIV through the provision of sterile injecting equipment, needle exchange promotes the survival of injection drug users (IDUs) in the starkest sense; yet NEPs also attract a diverse population of service users whose attendance is not necessarily related to drugs. This paper locates NEPs among a larger constellation of social services accessed by residents of poor neighbourhoods, including injection drug users, the homeless, the hungry, and those in need of medical services or just safe space. Drawing on ethnographic and interview data from a needle exchange in the South Bronx, I describe how both IDUs and others employed the organisation to make ends meet, elaborating four " off-label" usages of needle exchange: as a place to obtain basic necessities, as a source of income, as a safe space, and as a site of social contact. As harm reduction in the United States moves towards an increasingly clinical model of care, this paper considers these latent functions of needle exchange within the context of a larger struggle over the content and meaning of harm reduction services. By themselves, NEPs are clearly an unsatisfactory solution to the economic and political circumstances that drive a variety of individuals through their doors; yet, in a country that lacks a comprehensive welfare system, needle exchange arguably represents an important thread within a social safety net that is being woven from the ground up. This study may be used to argue for a (re)expanded mission for harm reduction in the United States, in the face of constant moves to narrow its mandate and reduce its budget.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)295-302
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health Policy


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