NewsFinding a Fix


Mobile drug abuse help left stationary when outreach needed the most

Frontline treatment trying to overcome challenges
Local needle exchange programs are saving lives but also seeing roadblocks for various reasons
Posted at 5:30 PM, Sep 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-22 20:18:46-04

CLEVELAND — As if kicking an opioid addiction isn’t hard enough, add some problems to the mix that area programs and clinics are trying to figure out. In our series “Finding a Fix,” we are examining solutions to the overdose issues we see in our communities every day. Problem is, there are powerful options in Cleveland for treatment and help, but they just can’t get rolling to all of the right people right now.

“My heroin addiction started when I was like 14,” said Jimmy Witt, 38, from Cleveland. “My mother lost a lot of night’s sleep expecting that phone call that I wasn’t here anymore.”

He’s overdosed more than 10 times. “It’s crazy to say it, but it’s to be expected sometimes,” said Witt.


Who would have expected Witt to find hope in a tiny parking lot in the 3300 block of West 25th Street in Cleveland? Inside an RV set up by MetroHealth, hope is measured, perhaps, a little differently than you’re used to.

“We’re given out over 290,000 syringes that we’ve exchanged (this year so far),” said Stephanie Shorts, the Program Coordinator for Project Dawn & Syringe Exchange.

It’s a needle exchange program, but much more than that. It’s education about what to do when someone overdoses. It’s recognition of need.

“A couple of the people on our RV witnessed folks in the community selling dirty needles because people were desperate to get the sterile needles, any needles they can get,” said Karolyn Tibayan, Director of the Office of Opioid Safety at MetroHealth.

It’s just being there.

“I think our team prides ourselves on building good relationships with the clients,” Shorts said.

Why do health leaders think it’s a good idea to give addicts everything they need but the actual heroin? The goal is to keep clients alive.

“And when they’re ready to actually get help, they feel comfortable coming to us,” said Shorts.


However, being there for addicts, for now, means being in that small parking lot only. It’s a mobile unit that’s stationary.

“The hold-back is having the buy-in from executive leadership, county leadership, police departments in allowing us to go there,” Tibayan told us.

It’s another case of “not in my backyard,” where communities don’t want the van, but in many cases need the van because of the recent explosion of opioid use. Harm-reduction programs like this have proven to save lives, reduce HIV and Hepatitis rates, and free up emergency rooms.

“This is something that we can handle here (at the needle exchange RV),” said Eric Sigmund, Clinical Manager of the Office of Opioid Safety. “Get them started on some type of treatment, help them with their withdrawals.”

Stigma is a big problem. “The people who are using our services — they don’t want to be living this lifestyle,” said Shorts.

“I didn’t believe it was a disease. I believed it was a choice,” said Sigmund. “But after talking with a lot of people and really seeing how difficult this addiction is, you do realize it is a disease.”


The other problem has been COVID-19.

“I know as a recovering addict that the new addict always needs support,” said Same Wingo, 65, who is a Needle Exchange Specialist at Circle Health and The Centers in Cleveland. He’s part of a team, along with Chico Lewis and Ahlem Zaaeed, that reaches out to addicts, offering them clean needles, cookers, toiletries and more.

The team usually takes its needle exchange van out into the community, however, the pandemic has made it tough.

“Since COVID has started, it’s been so rough for us with the opiate crisis because we are unable to do what we need to do with our clients,” said Lewis.

“My thing is, I worry about the client I don’t see,” said Wingo.

So, it’s more like what’s not going on. The team hasn’t seen the normal visitors because the van has been parked for months now.

“(Addicts) didn’t have no place to go,” said Wingo.


Thankfully, their clinic still has appointments available to help clients, but as COVID surges once again, Wingo and the team’s job is harder now than it’s ever been before.

“You got to reach that extra hand out to the client to pull them in and show them that you really care,” said Lewis.

“We’ve given them hope,” said Zaaeed. “We have planted the seed that there is a chance that they can get better.”

And it’s that hope Witt needs because the struggle has its consequences.

“I’m probably considered a bottom-of-the-barrel junkie where I have to hustle and steal and boost and do all types of things just to get by every day,” said Witt. “I try not to hurt anybody as I go. Every day is just waiting for either death or the penitentiary, for real.”

MetroHealth said it’s building another RV for the exchange program that should be ready by October. In the meantime, they are at West 25th Street across from Metro five days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and they even have COVID vaccines available.