Most of us spend our days avoiding the people that we see on the margins. We see addicts, prostitutes and homeless people every day, and we avoid them every day if we can help it, out of an overwhelming mixture of self-preservation and guilt.
Van Asher spends his days interacting with these people. In fact, he makes sure that they’ll still be alive tomorrow.
His job title is “Syringe Access Program and Harm Reduction Services Manager” at Saint Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction, a needle exchange in the Bronx. When you and I are at our day jobs, cursing an Excel spreadsheet or getting annoyed by a coworker with irritating personal habits, he’s actually saving people’s lives.
Asher is himself an addict, sober for many years. He currently limits his death-defying activities to just riding motorcycles, but one gets the sense from talking to him that the memory of his own substance abuse troubles will not fade anytime soon, which makes his desire to help others daily and immediate.
TZR: How did you get into working in a needle exchange and how long have you been doing it?
VA: I started as a volunteer. I met a man in 1992 who was living with AIDS. We became friendly and he told me he was volunteering at a needle exchange on Avenue C and thought I’d like it. I arrived the next day, and that was October 1992.
TZR: Before you got sober what kind of drugs did you do, and how many times did things happen that you shouldn’t have survived?
VA: I smoked crack, crystal meth, lots of hallucinogens, weed, about a fifth of tequila and a six-pack a day. I can honestly say five or six times I could’ve been killed by another person. I used to drive whacked all the time and totaled three cars under the influence.
TZR: Did providing resources for sex workers sort of come with the territory of doing the needle exchange, or was that something you came to separately?
VA: I thought, there are two strolls on the Lower East Side at the time, and sex workers were the highest risk for HIV, Hepatitis C and murder. I think the two should go hand-in-hand.
TZR: If there was one thing you could say to people to maybe make them a little more compassionate towards addicts and sex workers, what would it be?
VA: When we criminalize a behavior we cease to see the person. I wish you could see the person first and not let this one behavior totally define them. After all, we are all multi-faceted, and by defining a person by one action we cease to see them as a whole.
TZR: Do you see drugs or prostitution ever becoming legalized, and if so, do you think it help people develop a more compassionate opinion of addicts and sex workers?
VA: I think we need to decriminalize both. I think I’ll see it in my lifetime, and as a result they will no longer be criminalized, and can better function in regular society.