The Atlantic City council voted Wednesday to shut down New Jersey’s largest needle exchange program, despite a strong outpouring of advocates and supporters who have argued the program is vital to the public health of the casino town. After a two-and-a-half hour discussion and hearing from nearly 50 people opposed to the closure, the city council voted 7-2 to close Oasis, a harm reduction center run by the South Jersey Aids Alliance (SJAA) that provides services to 1,200 clients by providing clean syringes, testing services and recovery support.
The decision went against city health director Dr. Wilson Washington’s recommendation of keeping the needle exchange open while an alternative plan is figured out, according to Anthony Swan, the city’s business administrator.
“What happened at the council meeting was shameful,” said Jenna Mellor, director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “The council chose politics over public health, and residents of Atlantic City will die as a result.”
The city council — led by Council President George Tibbitt — has taken up the issue in recent months with a large swath of the council saying the harm reduction center brings blight to the city that makes other residents and tourists uncomfortable, while arguing other nearby towns should be able to support a similar type programs to serve people in Atlantic County.
“I understand that we probably need this, but don’t want it here,” said Councilman-At-Large Jeffree Fauntleroy II, who voted to end the program. “These people (supporting Oasis) don’t actually live in Atlantic City so they don’t see what is going on on a daily basis. They don’t walk over the syringes. They don’t see these people at your cars and begging for money.”
The anticipation of the council’s decision to close the Oasis, which has been open since 2007, drew outrage Wednesday from residents all across the state, including Atlantic City. Only two residents publicly supported ending the program at the meeting.
“You are not cleaning the island,” said Mike Nees, an Atlantic City resident. “You are sucking more people into the cycle of disease, stigma, addiction and instability.”
The move to close Oasis, one of the state’s seven needle exchange programs to support 9 million residents, comes as the Centers for Disease Control revealed that drug overdose deaths in the United States reached an all-time high and rose 30% in 2020 to a record 93,000 people.
Widespread research has shown that these programs are “proven and effective community-based prevention programs that can provide a range of services,” according to the CDC.
While New Jersey will now only have six locations with the eventual closure of Oasis, states like Kentucky, which has half the population of New Jersey, has more than 70 syringe access programs.
The CDC said decades of research has shown that syringe access programs are “safe, effective, and cost-saving, do not increase illegal drug use or crime, and play an important role in reducing the transmission” of certain infections, like HIV and Hepatitis C.
“This is a matter of public health versus politics — and the stakes couldn’t be higher,” Mellor said before the meeting. “New Jersey is in the middle of an overdose crisis that is only getting worse. Harm reduction services, like those performed at the Oasis Drop-In Center, are some of the few proven ways to prevent overdose deaths and connect people who use drugs to treatment.”
Gov. Phil Murphy, who has been supportive of syringe access programs, will now have the ability, if he chooses, to veto the council’s vote to close Oasis as the state continues to control Atlantic City’s government.
In a statement after the vote Wednesday, Murphy said he was “deeply disappointed” in the decision.
“This action will endanger some of the city’s most at-risk residents and contradicts my administration’s comprehensive, data-driven strategy to end the opioid crisis,” the governor said in the statement. “My administration continues to assess paths forward and we remain committed to preserving access to these evidence-based and life-saving services for Atlantic City and area residents.”
Speaker after speaker Wednesday told the council that the overall health of Atlantic City would suffer if Oasis were closed. In addition to providing clean needles, Oasis also offers a variety of prevention and support services to those dealing with addiction.
“These centers provide a safe space for individuals struggling with addiction,” said Natassia Ozorrio, the director of opioid response and policy at the New Jersey Department of Health. “These people who seek these services at the centers are people’s family and friends.”
Councilman-At-Large Moisse “Mo” Delgado, who voted in support of keeping Oasis open, along with Councilwoman Latoya Dunston, said before the vote that the council should properly consider the impact of ending the syringe access program.
“Any loss that could have been prevented falls in our hands as well,” he said.
During the meeting that took place via Zoom, Tibbitt held up a quarter-filled jug of syringes he said he collected in Atlantic City in a week-and-a-half recently.
“Is that fair to our children?” he asked. “Is that fair to our residents?”
The majority of the council said they agree with Oasis’ mission and would support it to operate elsewhere in Atlantic City or in another Atlantic County town, but not in its current location on Tennessee Avenue, which is in the city’s tourism district.
“We will continue to work with the state to get a good solution,” Tibbitt said.
Councilman Kaleem Shabazz said Oasis will not be closing its doors tomorrow and that the city will continue to work with the state for a solution that can provide adequate services to those in need.
The council members against the program said the city should not be the lone provider of these social services, while other municipalities don’t provide them.
“Atlantic City can take care of Atlantic City issues,” Fauntleroy said. “We shouldn’t have to take care of other people’s issues.”
Nearly everyone who spoke in support of keeping Oasis open also called on the state to add more syringe access programs across the state.
In this case, advocates said moving the needle exchange program to a new site could limit the number of people who could reach Oasis, as 60% of the facility’s clients arrive to the center on foot.
Multiple recovering drug addicts spoke at the meeting, describing stories of how needle exchange program saved their lives or how they lost close friends who didn’t have access to the programs.
“(Harm reduction programs) kept me safe and kept me alive until I was ready to change,” said Jennifer Sorensen, a social worker and academic who is more than 12 years drug free. “Without these services I would have died before I was 19.”
Others said that as the opioid epidemic worsens, these services are a necessity more than ever and closing them could be have a deadly impact.
“Our state cannot afford to lose Oasis,” said Jennie Chenkin, of New Jersey Harm Reduction. “…Atlantic City will pay with residents’ lives.”