Washington Heights subway tunnel is searched for needles by a multi-agency group

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NEW YORK – The cleaning of a tunnel in Washington Heights is the latest measure taken to combat the effects of the opioid epidemic.

The nation’s first official overdose prevention sites opened in Manhattan two months ago, promising to help heal the community after a spike in drug-related deaths. A group of neighbors put that promise to the test.

“I went through the crack era,” Washington Heights native Led Black told CBS2’s Jessi Mitchell. “I have never seen what I see now.”

Last month, Black got sick of seeing needles littering the West 191st Street subway tunnel along Broadway. He posted photos on his Instagram page @UptownCollectiv for thousands of followers to see. He caught the attention of newly elected city council member Carmen de la Rosa.

“She made a statement within hours and the next day it was clean, Black said.

The cleanup crew included a team from OnPoint NYC, which operates the overdose prevention site 800 yards away.

“I think it was a challenge to see if we were going to present ourselves as we say,” OnPoint NYC executive director Sam Rivera said. “Other people knew we would be there. I was proud to see that.”

Last week, Mitchell saw new evidence that harmful highs had returned to the tunnel. De la Rosa returned this week, however, with a multi-agency team and a promise.

“The DOT is committed to ensuring that this tunnel and other tunnels in this jurisdiction are given higher priority,” de la Rosa said at a news conference after the second effort by cleaning.

While neighbors have noticed more needles, there are also more users surviving their high. OnPoint NYC canceled 100 overdoses in the first six weeks of operation.

“I look at the difference between someone using in a community, hiding in a corner,” Rivera said, “and being in that space with support and having conversations about difference and change.”

The federal government announced that it would not interfere with the operation and is now providing more funding for programs like OnPoint NYC. Neighbors like Black, however, caution against a user-centric approach.

“The approach must put the community first,” Black said. “I think we have to put the children of our community, they are the future, the ones who do not use drugs.”

Black teaches his children to watch their steps.

If you have any advice on events in Harlem, please contact CBS2’s Jessi Mitchell by clicking here.

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