CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) — It was only a few months ago that the City of Charleston and the state outlawed clean needle exchange programs like the one SOAR operated.
At the porch of the outhouse behind Unitarian Universalist Church in Charleston was where the CDC first noticed Kanawha County’s HIV outbreak.
It was through the efforts of SOAR, which stands for solutions-oriented addiction response.
Members describe themselves as a grassroots response to the overdose crisis in Kanawha County after the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department shut down their needle exchange program in 2018.
“It was a health fair and we operated in broad daylight, the public was invited,” said Courtney Dowell.
Dowell has volunteered with SOAR for two years.
“I liked meeting so many people and seeing how happy they were that they were being treated as people, and not as a problem that needed to be solved,” she said.
Dowell says they decided to ask addicts what they needed to stay alive and safe; they responded with clothing, food, minor medical care, naloxone, and clean syringes.
They call it “harm reduction.”
But ever since the city moved to outlaw the distribution of clean syringes, they’ve seen fewer people at their harm reduction events.
“Since Charleston became the first city in the state to criminalize CDC-recommended life-saving harm reduction, it’s been a lot harder to connect with people, it’s been a lot harder to give out naloxone by the bushels,” said Joe Solomon, SOAR’s community engagement coordinator.
Still, the group has no plans to disband anytime soon.
They’ll still continue providing harm reduction, even without the syringes.
They’re also planning their next big event Saturday, at Magic Island Park, where 209 people will be wearing red t-shirts to form a human HIV SOS sign.
The public is encouraged to attend.
“And why 209 people? Because that’s how many loved ones we lost in Charleston and Kanawha last year in 2020,” said Solomon.
Overdoses that they say could have been avoided, like the HIV outbreak caused by the sharing of dirty needles.
Solomon says their message to the city council and the Mayor is simple: “It’s to announce a public health emergency which is what we’re in,” he said.
Saturday’s event will be held from 2 – 4 p.m. at Magic Island Park.
There will be music, food, and COVID-19 vaccinations as well as Naloxone.