The city of Austin has begun laying the groundwork for a new syringe service program (SSP) before the local, county-run SSP sunsets at the end of the year.
The Austin City Council voted 3-2 during its meeting last week to operate a future SSP within city boundaries.
SSP advocates have hailed the councilmembers’ decision as a victory for Scott County’s recovery community, which has become a national model since intravenous drug use led to an HIV outbreak in the county in 2015.
“This was a first really, really big step in the process,” said Brandon George, vice president of recovery programs and advocacy for Mental Health America of Indiana. “And more than anything, I think it gave hope in this situation. It was looking pretty bleak.”
Syringe service programs, also called needle exchanges, provide IV drug users with clean needles and a safe place to dispose of used ones. They can also act as an access point to healthcare or recovery services for those who are unlikely to seek them out.
Officials have credited the county’s SSP for taking new cases of HIV from the hundreds during the outbreak to single-digits last year.
“(Scott County) pretty much served as a white paper on how you go from having a very, very limited recovery community (to having a robust one),” George said.
But with cases at the lowest levels since 2015, the Scott County commissioners voted in June to end the exchange on Jan. 1, 2022.
After the commissioners made their decision, advocates started looking into ways to keep an SSP going.
They didn’t have to look far – the section of Indiana Code that covers SSPs allows “the executive body of the county or the legislative body of a municipality” to approve a SSP, as long as it operates within municipal boundaries.
“The next step is to find that entity, the nonprofit or the organization that could run the syringe service program,” said Kelly Hans, program manager at THRIVE Recovery Community Organization in Scottsburg.
Hans left her job at the health department earlier in the year to advocate for a new SSP.
She started a nonprofit, Holding Space Recovery Projects, to operate a harm reduction service if a new SSP was unavailable. It would provide many of the same services as the current SSP, just without the needles. But most of the time, that's what gets people in the door.
“I really want this moving forward to be a community effort,” Hans said. “I have hope today that, moving forward, we can have more community involvement in it.”
It’s her hope Holding Space will be chosen to run the new SSP, which will have to get funding from a source other than the county, since the health department will no longer operate it.
Hans and George said the plan is to take the issue to officials in Scottsburg, with the hope Scott County will have multiple SSPs after the county-run program closes.