The first state-regulated overdose prevention center in the nation will open in Providence in early 2024, according to a Tuesday press release by Project Weber/RENEW, a Providence-based nonprofit harm reduction organization. Project Weber/RENEW will launch the center in partnership with CODAC Behavioral Healthcare, an outpatient opioid treatment nonprofit.
Overdose prevention centers, also commonly referred to as harm reduction centers or supervised injection sites, are locations where individuals can use illicit drugs under the watch of medical professionals and other “trained staff,” who may also provide other forms of recovery assistance.
Project Weber/RENEW and CODAC were selected to open the location by the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services after EOHHS put out a request for proposals for a site in November 2022, The Herald previously reported. The center will be funded by $2.6 million the state received as part of a national settlement with three major opioid distributors.
The new facility still awaits approval from the Providence City Council and the Rhode Island Department of Health in order to move forward.
The center’s creation follows the extension of Rhode Island’s harm reduction pilot program. The original bill, passed in 2021, made Rhode Island the first state to provide temporary approval for an overdose prevention center until March 1, 2024, The Herald previously reported. Recently passed legislation has delayed the pilot’s sunset by two years to March 1, 2026.
“This is just a remarkably critical component of the continuum of care for the folks that we serve, and they’ve been underserved for so very long,” said Linda Hurley, president and CEO of CODAC. “If we can get this done and show that we have created a positive change, then this is going to be a model for a whole lot of people.”
There are currently two overdose prevention centers operating in the United States — both in New York City — but neither has explicit legal authorization from the state of New York or the federal government. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice blocked plans for another center in Philadelphia, arguing that it would violate federal law.
Parker Gavigan, director of communications for the Providence City Council, wrote in an email to The Herald that the Council and Project Weber/RENEW representatives will meet next week for discussions about the center.
Hurley said that meetings next week with the City Council will include Ward 15 Councilman Oscar Vargas visiting the proposed site at 349 Huntington Ave., which lies in the ward he represents. Gavigan confirmed that the visit is one of “several meetings scheduled for next week.”
Dennis Bailer, the overdose prevention program director at Project Weber/RENEW, said he believes a council vote on the issue will occur within a couple of months “at most” and that he was confident the plan has enough support on the council.
“I’m excited just to be able to really be there for people who use (illicit drugs) in a way which has never been done in our country,” said Bailer, who will become a co-director of the center when it opens.
According to the press release, The People, Place & Health Collective at Brown’s School of Public Health will conduct “a rigorous evaluation” of the program in order to measure “individual and community outcomes.”
After the pilot concludes, Bailer said that he hopes the data gathered will show that the center reduces overdose deaths “first and foremost” as well as Emergency Medical Services run costs, public usage and drug paraphernalia litter.
Hurley emphasized that the project remains in the early stages of development. She said policies and protocols for the site still need to be developed and medical consultation still needs to be hired. The location itself will also require significant “buildout,” she added.
The construction will include the demolition and reconfiguration of the location’s first floor to build the injection and inhalation rooms, according to Bailer. There are also plans to add additional showers, bathrooms and laundry facilities, he said.
The location is neighbored by a salvage yard, a used car lot and a passenger railway, but no residences, according to Hurley.
Project Weber/RENEW and CODAC have also begun outreach to Providence community members about the project.
According to Bailer, Project Weber/RENEW is planning to conduct door-to-door canvassing as well as a community cleanup in May around the proposed site. He added that there were also potential plans to put in plants and murals around the location to make the area “more welcoming” and “vibrant.”
Clients will be able to seek treatment for HIV and Hepatitis C, as well as wound care and other necessary medical referrals at the center, Bailer said. Wound care has become particularly important with the increased presence of xylazine — an animal tranquilizer known to cause severe tissue damage — in Rhode Island’s drug supply.
“It’s such a wide range of services for people who otherwise aren’t going to seek out those services” due to stigmatization, Bailer said.
Bailer added that one of the goals of the center is to keep people engaged and “in the space as long as possible,” whether they be showering and doing laundry, filling out housing and job applications or playing card games or watching movies, he explained.
This engagement “will encourage people, when they’re ready, to know that they can trust us to get them in other places” for treatment, Bailer said.
“No one who has substance abuse disorder had that as their dream,” said Bailer, who is in long-term recovery himself. “We had other dreams. And those dreams don’t go away for most of us. Those dreams remain in our thoughts.”
Bailer added that repeated criminalization and stigmatization have not been effective in addressing the opioid crisis.
“Let’s try something else and see what the numbers show,” he said.
Jacob Smollen is a Metro editor covering city and state politics and co-editor of the Bruno Brief. He is a junior from Philadelphia studying International and Public Affairs.