This article is part two of Crisis in New York, a series examining the effects public policies have on the city’s already strained housing, law enforcement and drug services. Read part one.
NEW YORK CITY – Francesca Barreiro loved being able to send her kids to the same Head Start program she attended as a young child. But then a city-approved center for addicts to do drugs opened across the street.
"They're allowing people to just get high and encouraging it," she told Fox News. "And it's not really helping them. They need help."
From open till close, drug users stream in and out of the center either with drugs in-hand or freshly high from their most recent hit. Addicts loiter outside the entrance listening to music and looking to score more drugs. Some are slumped over on the ground, appearing to be asleep. One on a nearby block jumped out of his stupor and started fighting an imaginary opponent in front of him.
Now, Barreiro walks on high-alert to and from the school, ready to shield her kids from the scenes of drug abuse. She pulls the stroller's hood as far down as it will go so her daughter won't see the man lying on the sidewalk as she veers around him.
"Our kids are pure. They have an imagination. They have creativity. They should not be experiencing seeing that stuff," she said.
A lifelong New Yorker, Barreiro and her husband have five kids between 2 and 11 years old. She lives in downtown Manhattan, but travels to East Harlem several times a week to drop off one of her youngest at the Graham School at Echo Park, an early childhood education program for kids up to 5 years old.
The 40-year-old mother started sending one of her older kids to the school about six years ago and said she’s always noticed some drug abuse in the surrounding area. But the problem was exacerbated after the nonprofit OnPoint NYC opened the nation’s first overdose prevention centers in November 2021, one in Washington Heights and the other across the street from the school.
Also called harm reduction centers, these locations provide drug users with a place to shoot-up under medical supervision in "narcotic consumption booths" equipped with clean needles and the overdose reversal medication naloxone. Advocates say offering a safe environment and lifesaving intervention will help curb a rising overdose death toll, but critics argue that providing free needles and a city-approved location to use illegal drugs will keep addicts using rather than encourage them to seek treatment.
Initially, Graham parents weren’t aware of the safe injection site operating within view of the school’s entrance, Barreiro said. But the center’s popularity among addicts grew over summer 2022, and word quickly spread.
"We're like, ‘wait, what? Across the street from the school? This doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Our babies are in there,’" Barreiro said.
On a brisk November day, Fox News saw about a dozen addicts hanging around the injection site. In warmer months, Barrio said she'd see double that when she got to the school in the afternoons.
"Once you get on 125th Street, people would be there, either drugged up or trying to get some drugs," she said. "They'll be hung over doing like that Michael Jackson lean-over."
"It gives you anxiety just as a person going through," Barreiro added. "And as a mom with little ones, I have to hold my kids and grab them tight."
Barreiro said Graham stopped moving class outside on nice days or taking kids on midday walks due to the neighborhood changes. Her kids often see used needles on the sidewalks and have witnessed people defecating themselves or fading in and out of consciousness, she said. They've asked her "why they look like zombies."
"'These are people that just need help,'" Barreiro recalled answering. "It's a horrible experience and a horrible thing to tell my kid, 'They're taking drugs that is making their bodies do this.’"
After she and other parents shared concerns with the school, a monthly meeting was established in February between OnPoint staff and local officials to answer questions and share more information about the harm prevention center.
"I get it, you want to help them. You want to give them clean needles and you provide a safe haven for them," Barreiro said. "But you're not really helping them because eventually you're not going to be there and they're going to overdose and they're going to be dead in the street."
Since opening two years ago, 4,216 people have used the two Manhattan centers more than 106,000 times, and 1,235 overdoses have been reversed, according to OnPoint.
Barreiro's no stranger to addiction. Her mother was an immigrant in an abusive marriage with a house full of babies when she got hooked on drugs. Barreiro remembers watching her mom suffer from both domestic and drug abuse until she ended up in the hospital and was given an ultimatum: either get clean or lose custody of her kids. She immediately checked herself into a detox program and has been clean nearly 30 years.
"She's my hero and she's my strength," Barreiro said.
"She got motivated. She cleaned herself up because she knew what was at stake," she added. The staff at the detox program "were excited about her coming in clean, they cheered on for that, not cheering her on to get high."
Her mother’s story makes Barreiro think overdose prevention centers take the wrong approach to serving addicts and do more harm than good.
"Motivate them to get off of the drug, don't cripple them and cheer them on to get high because then you're just feeding in to their addiction," she said.
Nationwide, overdose deaths spiked 30% to 93,655 between 2019 and 2020, and have continued to hit new records each year, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. Over 111,000 people died from drugs in the 12-month period ending in June.
Despite the overdose reversals at OnPoint's safe injection sites, New York City saw a record-high 3,026 fatal drug overdoses in 2022, more than doubling 2019's total, according to the health department.
Barreiro thinks OnPoint should shut down its safe injection sites and find a way to help addicts that encourages them to get clean.
But if nothing else, keep it away from kids, she said.
"Don't do it where there's parks. Don't do it where there's early Head Start programs," Barreiro said. "Don't do it where these little babies are seeing stuff. They shouldn't have to see a man in a street with a needle on their hand passed out half naked."
Neither OnPoint NYC nor the Graham School responded to requests for comment.