When safe injection sites close, the subway becomes the next best stop

Earlier this month, a young woman huddled inside a door on a platform at the 181st Street station along the No. 1 line, injecting herself with heroin in her left arm and placing another syringe on the floor beside her.

“It’s not something I’m proud of – I want to change my life,” the 20-year-old homeless man, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Lysha, told THE CITY. “But I can do my thing here without being disturbed or disturbing people.”

Lysha said she had already walked a few blocks from the 181st Street stop to OnPoint NYC — one of the nation’s first two supervised overdose prevention centers — to replenish her supply of syringes and rubber.

But once the drop-in center closes at 8 p.m., the 181st Street station can serve as a safe haven for people who want to use drugs, she said.

“If I had a place to stay, I wouldn’t be on the subway,” Lysha said. “It’s kind of like a second home.”

Officials of OnPoint NYC, the nonprofit that last November expanded its harm reduction services at existing facilities near the 181st Street stop and 125th Street station on the line of Lexington Avenue, acknowledged that the transit system can be a draw after hours.

“It’s true,” said Samuel Rivera, executive director of OnPoint NYC. “People will go to the safest place possible.”

Janno Lieber, president and CEO of the MTA, said in March that drug use at the 181st Street station was “a serious problem”, citing what he called “a new safe injection site nearby “.

“We understand this is something people do for safety reasons and there is good policy behind it,” Lieber said. “But we can’t stand a situation where the subway becomes, when this facility closes, the second choice for where to inject, where to use drugs, and we’re working with the city to address that.”

People wait for a No. 1 train at 181st Street, May 6, 2022.

Sarah Meyer, MTA Chief Customer Officer, tweeted in February that the centers should be open 24/7. She also noted that during closing hours, hundreds of needles were thrown onto subway tracks and platforms.

The concern over drug use in the transit system comes as the number of overdose deaths in the city rose 17% in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the MTA has reported to several users’ concerns about security in the metro.

Robert Kelley, an official with Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union which represents subway cleaners and station attendants, told THE CITY that some workers were “frightened” after being threatened at train stations.

“When they’re doing their thing, they don’t want anyone near them,” Kelley said of drug addicts. “It’s horrible.”

The NYPD could not provide data on the number of overdoses or drug-related incidents that occurred at the two stations closest to OnPoint NYC locations.

But the MTA said it received more complaints about drug use at the Washington Heights station than at the East Harlem stop.

A safe injection site in East Harlem, May 9, 2022.

FDNY statistics provided to THE CITY show that drug-related calls to the 181st Street station on the #1 line and the 125th Street stop along the 4/5/6 lines have actually declined between April and December last compared to the same period for the two previous years.

There were 16 drug-related calls to the 125th Street station between last December and April, according to the FDNY. There were 64 in the same period a year earlier, according to statistics – and 71 from December 2019 to April 2020.

At 181st Street, FDNY figures show there were seven drug-related calls between December 2021 and last month — up from 0 for the same period a year earlier, at the height of the pandemic, but down from 13 calls between December 2019 and April 2020.

Want to do more

Staff at overdose prevention centers believe they have had an impact and would also like to extend their hours of operation.

“You may think we’re part of the problem when in fact, we’re a big part of the solution,” said Kailin See, senior program manager for OnPoint NYC.

Through May 1, the two centers have seen 1,133 attendees, responded to 283 potential overdoses and had to call an ambulance five times, OnPoint NYC officials said.

“We are very proud of these numbers,” See said.

But See noted that three fatal overdoses have occurred during off-hours at OnPoint NYC facilities — including two at Washington Heights subway stations.

“They close at a certain time and then there’s no place to go, so does it make sense to consider extending the hours of these centers or staggering them?” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens’ Advisory Committee. “Your need for services doesn’t end at 8 o’clock at night.”

Rivera, the executive director, said OnPoint NYC plans to keep both centers open until 11 p.m., hoping to one day provide round-the-clock services. They currently operate from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, and the Washington Heights center is open on weekends until 4:30 p.m.

“We need to be able to get funds to pay staff who work specifically in overdose prevention centers,” he told THE CITY.

The nonprofit also offered the MTA to put kiosks in seven Washington Heights subway stations along the No. 1 and A lines where drug addicts could drop syringes or other paraphernalia and be directed to reception centers by outreach workers. It also includes an idea for OnPoint NYC staff members to sweep these stations for drug-related trash.

“The solution is sitting on their desk,” Rivera said.

A city hall spokesperson said the city is working with the MTA and OnPoint NYC to connect people to the services they need.


Addicts have told THE CITY that their cravings can occur at any time.

George, a 52-year-old homeless drug addict who comes to the East Harlem facility ‘three or four days a week’ to get hygiene kits, supplies and food, said he would appreciate overtime in a place where he said “everyone is on the same page.”

“If it was open longer, people would come,” said the licensed metal polisher, who describes himself as a lifelong crack user. “If it’s open 24 hours a day, this place will be running 24 hours a day.”

When it’s closed, he says, he sometimes takes refuge in the metro.

“I just worry about my safety and what I’m doing and where I can do what I’m doing and then I get the hell out of here,” he told THE CITY.

The opening of an overdose prevention center near East 125th Street, which already had a high concentration of drug and methadone treatment clinics, is emblematic of what the Greater Harlem Coalition has called “systemic saturation.” neighborhood.

The NYPD monitored the East 125th Street station from a stand on the downtown lower tracks, May 9, 2022.

“The Overdose Prevention Center is doing God’s work and it’s a fantastic organization made up of people who care deeply,” said Shawn Hill, co-founder of the coalition. “Nevertheless, despite the good it does, it contributes to the oversaturation of our community that wealthier, whiter neighborhoods are often not asked to assume.”

“Because of the density of treatment centers, it’s become a good place to use it,” said Kerry Ann King, a Harlem resident who said she saw a man overdose on a plate. -shape at the 125th Street stop at Lenox Avenue earlier this month.

“It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people and that’s not good.”

Lysha, at the 181st Street station, said she was “just trying to make it work for me” when she was doing drugs at subway stations. She sometimes ends up there, she said, because she was told by the police to “get off.”

An NYPD spokesperson did not comment on Lysha’s claim and asked for the names of the officers to confirm her story.