Photo by Gwen McClure Peer worker Gina Villacis helps participants sign up for lunch, one of the services offered at CitiWide Harm Reduction.

A Mott Haven health-care agency has embarked on a major expansion which will bring a full array of services to the neighborhood’s population of homeless and at-risk drug users.

CitiWide Harm Reduction, a 16-year-old program housed near a bodega and a diner on 144th Street, will begin construction on the new $400,000 Wellness Center this month.

The new center will be staffed with doctors, psychiatrists and nurses to help recovering and current drug users deal with problems ranging from homelessness to AIDS.

“It’s going to be very walk-in oriented,” said Robert Cordero, the executive director. “They can literally walk in and see a provider, and that’s critical when you’re talking about people who are experiencing homelessness and who are using drugs.”

CitiWide already offers its participants a variety of programs and services including needle exchange, basic diagnostic and preventive care, and support groups.

Founded in 1995 by Brian Weil, a photographer and drug user, the agency estimates that it has served 10,000 clients since its foundation. It currently serves over 2,500 clients in an area that remains one of the highest in HIV infection in the nation.

Upstairs on a recent Wednesday people were cleaning and clearing the second floor so that construction could begin.

In the midst of the activity, Randee Phillips stood behind a man seated in a chair with small acupuncture needles protruding from around his ear, a treatment for addiction-related cravings.

“It’s kind of a forgotten population and they feel safe here. It’s really important,” the acupuncturist said. “I see people turn their lives around. I love working here.”

Participant John McDuffie echoed this feeling of comfort. He moved to the Bronx in 2005 in hopes that he would find better services than he had in Long Island and spoke candidly about his struggles with addiction and his mental and physical health.

“For the mental health service, I don’t have to go outside for the clinics,” he said. “It would be much better because I don’t like the buses or trains, I can come right here- at home.”

McDuffie now works in peer outreach, acting as a mentor.

HELP/Project Samaritan, an organization that works to make healthcare more widely accessible, will partner with CitiWide to run the center. Cordero expects the partnership to play a big part in its success.

“In addition to hepatitis, HIV and drug use, they’re struggling, a lot of them, with diabetes and high blood pressure and things that are related to diet,” he said. “So you’ve got this kind of synergy of plagues in the South Bronx that we have an opportunity to make a dent in it. No one agency is going to be able to do it.”

Cordero also said the new center will reduce the cost of healthcare for the government. “The goal here is to create a home for them, a health home,” he said. “They can receive ongoing preventive and primary care so they don’t wind up getting their primary care in the emergency room.”

“It’s very good,” McDuffie said, smiling. “It’s going to help a lot of people.”


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