08/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

New York Midnight Heroes

Terrell Jones can't be tired. It's midnight on a Saturday, but he must wipe the sleep out of his eyes because his night is just beginning.

Jones is a volunteer with the New York Harm Reduction Educators and as the clock strikes 12 he's hopping into a fellow volunteer's gray Jeep Liberty for a 6 hour safari through the darkest streets of New York. While most of the city sleeps, he'll spend his night seeking out those individuals most at risk for HIV and Hepatitis C, and ministering to them about safe health practices while delivering clean syringes.

"When we're out there we're on the lookout for street workers, homeless, individuals that we have an idea that they're using," he said. "We go into very hot drug areas," including Hunts Point, the South Bronx and lower Manhattan.

One particular Saturday Jones and his partner were following a tip that took them deep into East Harlem, to the corner of 127th St. and 2nd Ave.

"We turned the corner and it was open for business, there were street workers everywhere," he remembers. "They were manly all transgenders, and those are the ones who are very reluctant to engage with us." But Jones and his partner were able to win the trust of the group.

The team distributed 2,000 clean syringes that night, at a rate of one used needle for one new one. That's 2,000 used syringes off the streets. In addition, they distributed condoms, antiseptic pads and bleach kits for cleaning the needles. They also referred the individuals to treatment and counseling services offered by the organization, recommended charity organizations where they could get a hot meal and new clothes, and offered incentives like McDonalds gift cards for getting tested for HIV.

"We let them know, if you're going to be out here, be safe, and if you're going to use, use clean," he said. Jones' late-night sojourn isn't his only service. The Harm Reduction Educators operate a syringe exchange and testing program six days a week from two converted RVs that park at different spots throughout the city.

"A lot of people who are users are not going to travel more than 5 miles from their neighborhood, that's a statistic," he said. "If they're not going to come over here, we're going to go to them."

The RV serves not only drug users, but also a number of diabetics, whose limited mobility means that they can't travel to get new syringes for their daily injections. And without healthcare, many of them wouldn't be able to pay for the pricey needles anyway. The Harm Reduction Educators provide these patients with up to 100 syringes at a time.

"These people live in our community and they turn to us for these services," he said "People look at syringe exchange and make is so nasty, because HIV is sexually transmitted or a 'gay disease.' No, it's not that, anyone in the world can use this service."

Jones has helped many people salvage their life. He remembers one particular case: a man who came to him years ago in ragged clothes, with track marks on his arms, and infected with Hepatitis C. With encouragement from Jones, he underwent treatment and counseling at the center and today he is living in his own apartment and looking for a job.

He visits the center almost every day to show people that they can turn their lives around. "These individuals that we run across, they're tired of the streets, you know, and they're ready to make some changes, but they don't know what to do. This man, he shows that if you work the program, you can get the best out of it. But you've got to work the program," Jones said.

Jones isn't tired yet and it doesn't look like he'll be giving up his Saturday night routine any time soon. He's dedicated.

"I can be on my day off, on a Sunday or a vacation or whatever, and I am always looking around the city thinking, 'Who needs help around here?'" he said. "It's volunteering, but it's a 24/7 job."

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