OnPoint New York City operates the country’s first publicly recognized safe consumption sites for people who use drugs. Safe consumption sites give people a place to use in a secure environment with people trained to help if there’s an overdose. According to Sam Rivera, executive director of OnPoint, the sites also provide case management, housing assistance, three meals daily, laundry and shower facilities, a nap area, medical services, addiction treatment, massage, acupuncture and reiki therapy. Rivera said the organization has had 355 interventions — occasions where they were able to stop someone from overdosing — since opening in late 2021.
Alsane Mezon, 57, a medical assistant and harm reduction specialist, works in OnPoint's overdose prevention center (OPC) and is a “mama to many.” In an essay for TODAY, she shares more about her role there and what people encounter when they visit the overdose prevention center.
When people arrive at our site, they meet a staff member who gathers information to help us understand that person and their needs. Someone stays with them the entire time to help them feel comfortable. First, we tackle some housekeeping — sharing rules, which discourage violence, and gathering information about when they last consumed drugs. We stress that we’re there to provide a safe space to consume drugs and save their lives, if needed. And we let them know they can connect with a case worker to access the various other programs.
I try to make sure the environment feels humane, loving and judgment free for someone consuming drugs. After intake, we show them the equipment in the safe consumption center, which includes a handwashing station and equipment needed to consume, such as clean needles. If people plan to smoke, they do so in an airtight room with a filtration system. This stops the smoke from wafting through the facility impacting others there. People consuming non-smokable drugs go to a different safe consumption spot. After each use, staff sterilize the area.
If people need help with their equipment, I can assist. I can tie someone’s arm and also provide information on anatomy and answer any questions they have. After they finish using, I watch them to make sure they’re safe. If I notice their faces start to discolor or they aren’t responding to me, I can tell they might be overdosing. We try giving them oxygen and check their heart rate. If that doesn’t work, we treat them with medication such as Narcan to stop the overdose. The medical staff often explain to the person exactly what happened. People feel very grateful for our help and this experience often gives them a lot of hope.
Many times people feel fine and leave after observation. Sometimes we share a laugh and a few stories before they head off for their day.
While this sounds very clinical, the experience is actually transformative for people. It’s something I’ve never quite witnessed before in my career — people feel good that they are being treated like a human even though they’re using drugs. For many, they’ve never felt like this before or even felt valued as a person. It gives them hope when they’re treated so well in a what feels like a medical setting.
Nurturing people is essential to my work. I want to offer hope and respect and I’ve developed relationships with people who use the site. If I’m running late, there’s often a group waiting for me because they know my schedule. They’re like my second family and they’re all part of my community. Every time someone comes in, I tell myself this is someone’s child and I love them. The love is healing for many and knowing that someone truly cares with no judgement makes a huge difference in their days.
The people using our center heal me as much as I heal them. If I have a bad day, a simple "thank you" from someone I'm helping turns it around. Love is amazing medicine, and they keep coming back for it. What that means is they’re more likely to work with a case manager or to open up to social services. When they confide in me, I encourage them to love themselves. When they call themselves junkies, for example, I explain that they’re self-medicating for a reason. Maybe they were abused as a child or sexually assaulted. I reassure them they’re more than just a label.
This relationship really matters and makes a difference in people’s lives. For many people, they’re receiving acceptance that they’ve never had. I want to save people and make their life a little bit better. I raised two beautiful children and helping my community is my way of thanking it for all it gave me and my family. My work at OnPoint is about me loving and saving my community. I have immense empathy for the people we serve and I love that we can offer them comprehensive care, which is often unusual in medicine.
One time someone came back and thanked me for saving their life. Before my work here — when I worked in a traditional medical setting — I rarely received thanks for what I did. But I am not here for the gratitude. I’m just a person in their neighborhood looking out for others. We live together. We share the same water. We walk the same streets. I’m just like them and I want to help. I know they’re beautiful inside and I want to help them shine.
This interview has been edited and condensed.