Sometimes, if you don’t build it in the right place, they won’t come.

That was the case with Vermont Cares’ harm reduction van, which has been stationed behind the Morristown Emergency Medical Services office for the last year in a pilot program.

No one used the van’s services, said Theresa Vezina, associate director of Vermont Cares.

So, Vermont Cares is forging a groundbreaking partnership with North Central Vermont Recovery Center, on Brooklyn Street in Morrisville, which will have the harm reduction van in its parking lot every Monday starting Oct. 1.

The van

The Vermont Cares harm reduction van has been traveling to St. Albans, Swanton, Middlebury, Newport and Morrisville since last year, Vezina said.

People who come to the van can receive free, anonymous services such as safe, sterile syringes, safe disposal of used needles, sterile medical equipment for safe injections, free naloxone, private HIV and hepatitis C testing, and wound-care kits.

Vermont Cares also recently began offering fentanyl test kits, which will test heroin samples for 10 varieties of fentanyl, a powerful drug that can cause an overdose at much lower levels than heroin.

Vezina said Vermont Cares conducts a survey every year about behavioral changes, and up to 80 percent of respondents said they changed their behavior when they learned a sample they were about to use tested positive for fentanyl. Rather than use the heroin alone, they used it with a friend, or used the drugs anyway, but with naloxone on hand.

“These are great behavior changes,” Vezina said.

She also says about 90 percent of syringes handed out in the harm reduction van are returned for safe disposal.

Anyone can obtain the HIV and hepatitis C testing services for free, Vezina said.

Vermont Cares is a nonprofit with about a $1 million annual operating budget, in total.

About $55,000 of that goes toward each of the organization’s sites — including the harm reduction van, Vezina said, and permanent sites in St. Johnsbury, Barre and Rutland.

Almost 600 people in total were served last year, Vezina said.

She estimated it costs $2 to put together each sterile injection kit, which includes sterile water, alcohol pads and cookers.

The Vermont Department of Health covers HIV and hepatitis C testing, and provides naloxone.

The van has been parked behind the Morristown Emergency Medical Services station on the first Monday of every month from 10 a.m. to noon, but now, that same time slot will lock the van in at North Central Vermont Recovery Center.

A historic partnership

Vezina and Daniel Franklin, assistant director of North Central Vermont Recovery Center, said a partnership between a needle exchange and one of Vermont’s 12 recovery centers has never been cemented.

That’s because many times, people in recovery think they can’t be around people still misusing substances, or people struggling with substance misuse feel judged by those in recovery.

However, Vezina said having a needle exchange sharing space with a recovery center can be beneficial to both sides, helping work away at the stigma against those who struggle with substance use, and act as a bridge.

It also capitalizes on the trust North Central Vermont Recovery Center has built up within the community to encourage people to give the van a try.

Trust is key, because people are often nervous to visit a harm reduction van for the first time.

“They don’t know us,” Vezina said. “They’re worried they might be outed” as a person who uses intravenous drugs, or lose their children or their probation.

But if they hear about the van from a friend, or from a trusted recovery center, people might be more inclined to use its services, Vezina said, and possibly take further steps toward recovery.

“We serve as a bridge toward recovery if that’s what the person is looking for, and help facilitate that. Working through the steps (toward recovery) is one part. The other part is getting people a safe, nonjudgmental space that, when they are starting to think they can talk about their struggles and what’s going on in their life, if they’re not ready for recovery, we can give them positive people in their lives,” Vezina said.

That’s important because “so often, you don’t have anyone when you’re using. So much is based around abstinence. When you’re not abstinent, you don’t have support people,” she said.

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