In 2013, more than 8,200 people died from heroin-related overdoses. That same year, more than 100 Americans died from opioid overdoses every day.
Since then, the numbers haven’t decreased, giving reason to believe that we are in the midst of a crisis.
The documentary film “Everywhere But Safe: Public Injecting in New York” does not necessarily tell you why or how we, as a country, have reached these devastating numbers. But what it does do is explain what we can do to help those who are addicted to opioids such as painkillers and heroin. Through impactful vignettes of lived experiences, filmmakers Taeko Frost and Matt Curtis bring the stories of drug users to the forefront in this film conversation about addiction and public health.
People who use heroin on a regular basis must find ways to discreetly “shoot up.” Drug users in the film share stories about shooting up in cars, parking lots and parks. Their experiences detail a sense of urgency and desperation in choosing where to use the drugs. Some days — good days — users inject in a bathroom or a bedroom. Other days they inject in a secluded spot in a forest.
There are many health hazards with public injection for both users and nonusers. Those who are forced to inject in public are twice as likely to have overdosed in the past year, according to the film. Because locations may not be safe and in the chances of an overdose, there may be no one around in times of need. Many may reuse syringes, either their own or those discarded, which increases the risk of transferring diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. The risks are even higher for homeless people.
Frost and Curtis interviewed public health officials, drug users and organizations to discuss the importance of harm reduction policies and programs. Harm reduction, as described by NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Assistant Commissioner Hillary Kunins, is an approach that protects the health of those using drugs while reducing the physical and social consequences.
The film presents supervised injection facilities (sif) as one promising form of harm reduction. The sites offer a space where people can legally inject drugs in clean and safe environments under the supervision of medical staff.
Many people may not know how to inject properly and pose a health risk to themselves. At a sif, users do not have to hide behind a bathroom door. They can receive medical attention and easily access treatment options.
The first legal sif was created in Europe more than 30 years ago, and since then 98 sifs have cropped up in 66 cities across the globe. Yet there is only one in North America, located in Vancouver, British Columbia.
In addition to providing care for those using, the film mentions the economic benefits of safe injection sites. Vancouver’s facility, InSite, has resulted in a 35 percent decrease in overdose-related deaths in the neighborhood. It has also saved the city millions of dollars by preventing countless HIV infections.
Advocates are interested in providing safe injection sites in Seattle, and the efforts to establish one are now beginning to pick up speed. While the film’s focus was primarily in New York, “Everywhere But Safe” gives a glimpse of how injection sites can serve a growing population of drug users.
Directors Frost and Curtis brought the film to Seattle’s Town Hall in November, where a panel of activists, experts and drug users spoke on finding innovative ways to provide harm reduction services locally. Real Change was among the sponsors of that screening.
There are a variety of harm reduction programs in Seattle run by local government and nonprofit organizations. The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance is a local needle-based distribution program and one of the largest needle-exchange programs in the nation. In March 2015, the program made headlines when it began providing methamphetamine users with clean pipes. When an individual decides to seek treatment, they are afforded the best chances of a healthy life.
The stories in “Everywhere But Safe” also are true for many that walk the blocks of Seattle. The film’s strength lies in presenting safe injection sites as an opportunity to decrease the number of deaths nationwide.