It’s been a part of Everett’s street culture since 1988, the early years of efforts to address the AIDS epidemic and the “bleach and teach” outreach to those using injectable drugs to stop sharing needles and to sterilize the syringes in order to reduce transmission of HIV and other diseases.
That legacy remains in its official name, AIDS Outreach, but to most it’s known as the needle exchange, which for many years has done its work quietly but efficiently from a small office in north Everett that is indistinguishable from the other businesses in its neighborhood.
Since 1994, it has offered a syringe exchange service that trades used needles for new syringes on a one-for-one basis, along with other supplies, all focused on reducing harm to those using drugs but also to the community at large that too often comes in contact with used needles in parks, streets and public restrooms.
In that first year, it exchanged about 25,000 needles, said Cheri Speelman, program director. That number had grown to 125,000 in 1996, her first year with the program. Even as needles have become a common sight on sidewalks and elsewhere, last year the program collected more than 2.1 million used syringes, heading off their improper disposal and cutting the risks for infectious disease.
As importantly, the program provides the opportunity for Speelman and health educator Matt Standerfer to talk with clients, advise them on safer practices and ways to avoid and respond to drug overdoses and be a resource for services that can move people into treatment for addiction. It also can connect them with additional health information and services, often for people who may have little interaction with police or health providers.