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In the 1990s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic when it was estimated that 200,000 New Yorkers had AIDS, the issue of funding a program that provided clean needles to drug addicts was something that New York politicians wouldn’t touch. In addition, in 1988, the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs had been banned because the practice was considered so controversial. Critics claimed that clean needle programs encouraged addiction. Worse yet, the legal restrictions on syringe access, coupled with intensive law enforcement efforts targeting drug markets, had produced a severe and artificial scarcity of syringes that resulted in widespread needle-sharing and HIV/AIDS transmission among drug injectors.
Robin Hood (an independent, non-partisan poverty-fighting organization) wasn’t afraid to take on the issue. By removing dirty needles from circulation, we could help stem the spread of AIDS, hepatitis and other critical diseases. And, as important, we could help prevent the transmission of AIDS to unborn children.
To us, the issue was simple: a 97-cent needle could save lives.
In 1993, Robin Hood made its first needle exchange grant of $40,000 to a program in East Harlem called New York Harm Reduction Educators, an organization we still fund today.
Robin Hood would continue to be the city’s largest private funder of needle exchanges for the next two decades.
Since Robin Hood began funding syringe exchanges in 1993, the rate of HIV infection among injection-drug users in New York City has declined to 13% from 50%. What once seemed like a risky strategy—providing clean needles to IV drug users—has gone mainstream. Today, state government has stepped in to cover the cost of clean needles, while Robin Hood continues to fund programs that provide supportive services that connect intravenous drug users to needed health and housing services.
Robin Hood’s needle exchange program still stands as a prime example of Robin Hood's willingness to support an innovative, risky idea until it becomes a mainstream government-supported solution. We can then step back and begin to look for the next innovative, “risky” idea that can improve the lives of New Yorkers in need.