EAST HARLEM, Manhattan (PIX11) — Some elected officials have congratulated the operator of the two safe drug injection sites in New York City — the only publicly sanctioned sites in the country — for preventing more than 1,000 overdoses.

The state legislators have also introduced a new bill to legally protect the overdose prevention center operator. Still, it now faces a legal threat from the most powerful federal law enforcement official in the region, and that’s got supporters, some neighbors, and former clients of the safe injection sites concerned about the future of the facilities.

OnPoint NYC is the operator of the two sites — one in East Harlem and the other in Washington Heights. Outside the busy East Harlem location, the scene is not always pretty. PIX11 News observed that in addition to many people who seemed healthy and well, various people were apparently overcome by the effects of illicit drugs. 

However, some nearby people, like Rotae Lee, who said he’s lived in East Harlem since 1962, said the community would be impacted without the OnPoint NYC center. 

“It would be worse than what you see now,” he said. 

Sasha Santana said that she’d used illegal drugs before and that her experiences at OnPoint NYC have shown its vital presence. 

“People are going to use, regardless,” she said about illicit drug use. “So by going to a decent place, you don’t infect somebody or possibly stick them with a needle.”

She recalled a past time when she’d tried to shoot up. “The batch that I had was not so good. Then I overdosed, and they saved my life,” she said about OnPoint NYC. “So that place is really helpful.”

OnPoint NYC has been allowed to operate the two sites through a measure approved by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2021. There, people can find clean needles, other drug-use paraphernalia, medical staff, and other resources to use drugs safely.  

A recent analysis by the organization concluded that it’s intervened in 1,008 overdoses since it started operating nearly two years ago. 

Those results are part of why some people are expressing disappointment and anger over a recent comment from the federal prosecutor for New York’s Southern District.

In comments submitted to The New York Times, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said:

“This is unacceptable,” regarding OnPoint NYC’s work, and added, “My office is prepared to exercise all options — including enforcement — if this situation does not change in short order.”

Sam Rivera is the founder and executive director of OnPoint NYC.

“It was a little shocking,” he said in an interview with PIX11 News. “It’s an opportunity for us to shine even more and prove that we’re saving lives in the most amazing way.”

“I appreciate the hundreds, maybe even thousands, who have reached out to show support,” he added.

Rivera said that the work of the overdose protection centers — and the lives and money they’ve saved — speak for themselves. He said it’s estimated that each overdose situation can cost $30,000 to treat, with first responders, emergency department visits, and treatments. He said that with more than 1,000 overdoses prevented, it’s resulted in $30 million saved.

“It’s a health issue,” he said, but added that the situation is also “a political issue.”

“We’re waiting for politicians to make decisions over whether we can keep people alive,” he added.

State Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan and State Sen. Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx have now introduced legislation that would shield the safe injection sites legally.

The two also issued a joint statement that said, in part:

We are at a crossroads in our fight against the ever-escalating opioid overdose epidemic. We hail the milestone of OnPoint NYC’s 1000th overdose intervention without a single death, a testament to the effectiveness and necessity of these facilities.

State Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan and State Sen. Gustavo Rivera

Nan Goldin, the photographer who founded the anti-addiction organization SacklerPAIN, and Alexis Pleus, who founded the drug use awareness organization TruthPharm, have both come out in defense of OnPoint NYC’s work in recent days.

All of the support, said Rivera, endorses his organization’s mission.

“Loving folks that haven’t been loved and giving them an opportunity,” he said.

Sasha Santana, the former client, put it another way when asked what may have happened to her when she overdosed in the past if OnPoint NYC had not been there to help.

“I probably would’ve been dead, most likely,” she said.