This is the first installment of Maine, Thankfully, a series about folks who are making things better for their communities and for our state at large. A new profile will run every week day between now and Christmas with each profile examining a variety of approaches to doing good. You can learn more about the series here.
Zoe Odlin-Platz is a Community Health Promotion Specialist at India Street Public Health. An initiative of the Portland Public Health Division, the health center “helps Portland residents reduce health risks, prevent HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and manage existing health conditions.” While her responsibilities at India Street are ultimately focused on a range of HIV prevention programs, Odlin-Platz says that her heart is in The Portland Exchange, a needle exchange program that exists to “reduce the spread of blood-borne pathogens such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C by exchanging clean needles and supplies for used equipment at no cost.”
To put any attention focused on her in context, Odlin-Platz wanted to clarify up front that “Yes, I am one person, but this work could not be done without the effort of every single person who works [at India Street Public Health]. Everyone is such a vital part of the work that we do and our team has never been stronger than it is now. I am a representative of a much bigger group and I am very proud of everything we do here.”
Please tell me a bit about The Portland Exchange.
I am very passionate about it. It is an HIV prevention program, one of many across the country and across the world. Programs like it are designed in a way to encourage active drug users by providing safety net services where they can come to to dispose of their dirty needles, get clean ones in return, and also receive education and related health services.
This program is offered as a means of preventing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C because aside from just exchanging needles, a huge part of the work we do is focused on education. When we educate people, they can be empowered to make their own decisions and positive changes in their lives. That is our ultimate goal.
Another benefit of offering the needle exchange within this broader suite of services is that we can connect participants with everything we have going on at India Street. We have an STD clinic and we have an immunization clinic so people can get free Hepatitis immunizations. We also have a Ryan White program here, where we offer primary care for folks who are HIV positive. That is a wonderful program—I don’t think there is another like it—where you get all of your healthcare needs under one roof. We have a psychiatrist and a drug and alcohol councilor and nurses and clinicians all on staff and they offer absolutely exceptional health care to a very stigmatized segment of our community.
Why is this work in particular important?
We offer STD testing for everyone who enrolls in the exchange. We have over 800 enrollees at this time and last year we exchanged over 170,000 needles. While I think that number can feel a little shocking for many, we see it as a good thing. It means those needles are not ending up in the community, and because it is imperative for prevention. The drug using community in Portland and Greater Portland is at such huge risk of HIV, Hepatitis C and so many other blood infections, skin abscesses and other ailments. At this time, when it can be so hard to obtain MaineCare—and for some in these communities it can be difficult to obtain any form of insurance—we are often the only place for people to come and get any health care at all.
We all come to work every day with the same shared vision of working with individuals who are so stigmatized and forgotten. Our goal and focus for that one day is to keep those individuals as safe as they can be that day. Is the ultimate goal to achieve drug rehabilitation for every drug user in Portland? Absolutely. I don’t think that I know a single active user that doesn’t want that, but the options are so limited and the resources are so scarce that unfortunately we have to kind of just wait until there are more options available. Until then, we will continue educating and building trust so that when those resources become available, the community will be ready for them.
We all have our days where it gets hard and we wonder what we are even doing. There are so few resources and funding is limited and sometimes it feels like we have so little support. But then we are reminded of the work we do directly by the individuals we serve, and the strides that we have made, and that really kind of keeps me going at the end of the day. We are making great progress educating the folks who come into the exchange. Knowing that our drug using community is educated is an important way to keep our greater community safer.
What moved you to get involved by working with this program?
Portland is a small community, so small that it is hard to not be affected by drug use. I lost a good number of friends to drug use back in the day. For me, this work is my way to give back to a community that is often forgotten, a community not necessarily thought of as as important as other groups of people. It is what keeps me going.
We at India Street want to be seen as a beneficial part of the community. At the end of the day, we work with people who might not have anyone else at the end of their day or week stop, look at them and give a smile. If we can be the one place where they always feel safe and welcome, then we are doing our job.
Have you had any recent experiences that have moved you, ultimately reminding you why you do this work?
That happens every day.
This is a group of people who are cast aside and because they are using drugs, they are assumed to be not very smart and careless about themselves and the people around them. These misconceptions that come with everything involved in drug use and not just that, but sometimes an HIV status.
There is a group of 10 or so drug users in this community and they are a tight knit group of friends. We have been seeing them in the exchange for years and two of them are HIV positive. Because they all access the needle exchange program, because they all have had experiences with all different staff here, and because they are so highly educated, the larger group continues to test negative. To me that’s a constant reminder of the efficacy of this work.
The fact that all of their friends continue to stay negative shows me the quality of work offered through all of the programs here and the importance of education and empowerment that we are able to give to people.
So many drug users have a similar story where they started using prescribed pain medication and for whatever reason that stopped—they lost health insurance or the doctor didn’t wean properly, or they simply got addicted and their doctor dropped them—and then it led them to street drugs. For many who come to the program, sometimes that step of simply admitting that they have a problem and saying it out loud is huge. Whenever we do intakes in the exchange, we try to congratulate the person for coming in. It’s a big step.
How can readers be helpful with your efforts and those of the exchange?
We have a very amazing group of volunteers that primarily do outreach in the drug using community and promote our STD testing, our HIV clinic, our immunizations and needle exchange program. That is the most beneficial way people can support us at this time. If people want to support that work that we do, they can come volunteer even if for only a day or a week. We have also had great experiences with interns from USM, and they have become absolutely essential parts of our team. We are proud of our volunteer group.
Volunteer inquiries should contact Program Manager Caroline Teschke at firstname.lastname@example.org.