The temperature was in the high 90s in the middle of a New York City heat wave, but that didn’t stop Ithaca College student Kerry Miley ’17 from swinging a huge hiking backpack onto her shoulders and walking the streets and parks of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The backpack was stuffed with syringes and flyers for the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center (LESHRC), where Miley spent her summer as an intern. LESHRC is a nonprofit that aims to minimize negative impacts associated with injection drug use, and outreach on the street is a huge component of the organization’s activities.
Kerry Miley '17 (right) with a Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center staff member in Tompkins Square Park in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Kerry Miley)
Using injection drugs publicly puts people at a much higher risk for reusing needles or getting arrested, but many of the people who use these drugs don’t have the means or motivation to come to the LESHRC facility.
“That’s why it’s important to go on foot to people, and we do push for them to come to the facility,” Miley said. “But there’s something really moving about going where the people are.”
When Miley wasn’t trekking around the Lower East Side, she worked at the harm reduction center conducting HIV testing and counseling, running the syringe exchange and assisting with an art therapy group.
As a public and community health major, Miley has studied the health concerns that different populations face, but reading a textbook in a classroom doesn’t compare to talking to an injection drug user in a homeless camp.
“There’s only so much you can learn in the academic setting,” Miley said. “There were a lot of times I felt unsure about how to respond to people who were in crisis.”
She quickly learned that listening was the best way to overcome that uncertainty and bridge the gap between her academic knowledge and her hands-on work in the community. Miley listened to the stories and needs of LESHRC participants to serve them in realistic, adaptable ways.
“The participants were my teachers in that way,” she said. “And I was their student.”
One particular participant gave Miley a true reality check. She met a young woman in a homeless encampment who stood out immediately — it was rare to come across women in the parks — and Miley encouraged her to come to the LESHRC facility. When she did eventually come to the center, she was Miley’s first participant intake. Because of her bruises, Miley suspected she was a victim of domestic violence.
“That made it very real for me,” Miley said. “It was impossible for me to not immediately see myself in her position when she looked exactly like a girl who could have been my roommate.”
Miley also learned the importance of helping locally. While many other health professionals believe real need only exists overseas, she got a firsthand look at how much impact she can create in a much smaller radius. In fact, shortly after Miley arranged to intern at LESHRC, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick announced his plan to open a harm reduction center for injection drug users.
Miley sees it as a perfect way to continue her work on a public health issue she’s passionate about.
“I have one more credit of internship work before graduation, and I’m pushing to start working at the syringe exchange downtown,” she said. “I’d love to hear Ithaca’s unique point of view on the safe injection site because it’s a much different area than the Lower East Side.”
She is also using some of her senior-level courses to do additional research on homelessness, overdose and addiction. And after graduation?
“I’m definitely interested in pursuing further work with underserved communities,” Miley said. “Right now I feel the most called to do more listening and hands-on work with individuals. I want to know what their needs are from their point of view.”