Overdose Prevention Centers Show Us How to End the Overdose Crisis 

In 2023, the overdose death rate rose to over 112,000 people, the highest rate ever recorded during a twelve-month period (Centers for Disease Control). During a similar time period, the nation’s first sanctioned overdose prevention centers in New York, OnPoint NYC, completed their first year of operation. A report detailing OnPoint’s findings during this inaugural year offers much wisdom and hope for how our country and our congregations can put an end to the devastating tide of overdose fatalities.  

What are Overdose Prevention Centers? 

Overdose Prevention Centers (OPCs) are places where people can use previously obtained substances, safely, under the supervision of trained staff persons. Additionally, OPCs provide a range of other healthcare and social services such as access to showers and laundry, food, mental health care, access to treatment for substance use disorder, holistic care such as acupuncture, art therapy, and spiritual care, case management and benefits assistance, connectivity services such as access to computers and telephones, as well as peer support and community building.  

The OPCs in NYC were established following more than 14 years of advocacy and community organizing efforts led by local harm reduction and drug policy advocates, unions of people who use drugs and their loved ones, as well as allies including significant contributions by NYC faith leaders and communities of faith. 

What is the evidence supporting Overdose Prevention Centers’ efficacy in addressing the overdose crisis? 

Over 100 overdose prevention centers (also known as Safer Injection Facilities or Safe Consumption Sites) operate in over 60 jurisdictions around the world, and in thirty years of operation there has never been an overdose fatality at one of these centers (NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene). There are only two sanctioned OPCs in the United States; both are in New York City. During the first year of operation, the overdose prevention centers in NYC were utilized 48,533 times by 2,841 individuals. OnPoint staff intervened in 636 overdose events to avert death and other potential harms related to a participant’s substance use. Of those interventions, naloxone (the medication to reverse an opioid overdose) was only used in 17% of cases. Additionally, at OnPoint more than 75% of participants accessed wrap-around services and 100% of OPC participants who wanted to go to detox or inpatient substance use treatment were connected to outside providers (OnPoint NYC). 

What does data from the Overdose Prevention Centers reveal about how to heal communities impacted by overdose? 

What this data meaningfully demonstrates is that the presence of caring and compassionate people trained in overdose prevention not only reduces overdose it also reduces the need for medical intervention (including the use of naloxone/high doses of naloxone which can result in uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms or costly EMS services) as well as eliminates overdose fatalities. Access to safer use supplies, educational resources, and compassionate, judgment-free support enables participants to increase personal wellness and build relationships with peers and service providers which increase the likelihood that they will stay engaged in care. Providing access to community space off the streets and free from the fear of legal or other public surveillance and violence, not only greatly reduces public drug use and syringe litter it also reduces the risk of incarceration, the risk of unsafe substance use practices and the number of overdoses that people experience. Most significantly, OPCs challenge the stigmatization of people who use drugs, convey worth for our most marginalized neighbors, and saves lives.  

What do Overdose Prevention Centers have to teach the Church about faithful responses to overdose? 

The witness of Overdose Prevention Centers is a critical testimony to the power of community led healing and justice efforts and the possibility that we can end overdose and the war on people who use drugs. At Synod in Indianapolis last summer, UCC delegates voted unanimously to pass the Faithful Advocacy for Intersectional and Transformational Healing in Harm Reduction (FAITH in Harm Reduction) resolution which supports a harm reduction justice rooted response to the overdose crisis and to freeing the beloved community from the oppressive and racist war on people who use drugs. The resolution, like OPCs, takes its lead from community led advocacy and on the ground work in partnership with people with lived and living experience. It gifts the Church a gospel for how justice and healing from the overdose crisis and the war on people who use drugs can be transformed. 

Rev. Erica Poellot is the Minister of Harm Reduction and Overdose Prevention Ministries for the United Church of Christ

Categories: Getting to the Root of It

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