DENVER, Colorado — The Harm Reduction Action Center (HRAC) moved from its home of five years on Colfax Avenue two weeks ago to a new location seven blocks south near several large apartment complexes, businesses and within 1,000 feet of three schools.

The new spot at 8th Avenue and Lincoln, inside the former French restaurant Le Central, is close to businesses and apartments that have expressed concerns about the proximity of the needle exchange to their properties.

One complex, MOTO Apartments, brought on an attorney who sent a demand letter to HRAC to prevent them from moving in. HRAC moved in anyway but has been reaching out to their new neighbors to better explain its work.

 “It’s been really positive," the center's director Lisa Raville said. "We’ve had a lot of one on one conversations and talking with folks about what we do, what we don’t do and how we can be supportive in this area.

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"I think there’s a lot of misinformation about the kind of neighbors we’ll be. We are invested in the health and safety of the communities in which we serve.”

The letter from attorney David von Gunten argued that the new HRAC location should be zoned as a medical facility, not as an office space. But the city has never required the center be zoned as a medical facility. HRAC provides clean syringes and tries to connect people with treatment but does not directly provide medical services.

The center is also within 1,000 feet of three schools. The Denver Board of Public Health and Environment granted a variance to zoning that prohibits syringe access centers from being so close. The board cited HRAC’s stellar track record and the fact that Raville’s team serves more people than all of Colorado’s syringe access programs combined.

The board can also revoke a variance at any time if issues pop up, but unlike some businesses, all three schools are on-board with the move.

“The Harm Reduction Action Center will provide an important service to the community," Denver Public Schools spokesperson Winna MacLaren said. "We are optimistic that they will be good neighbors. As a school district, we will work with the community if any issues arise involving the safety and well-being of our students." 

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The concerned businesses aren’t opposed to HRAC’s mission. In fact, they say they support the effort to address the opioid epidemic, they just aren’t sold on the center being in their area.

“We believe that the HRAC's mission and work to provide medical services to those it helps, is valuable, worthy and provides necessary services to the community,” said von Gunten via email. “However, we -- along with a number of others in the neighborhood where HRAC is opening its new location -- have concerns if the new location is the right place for HRAC to operate and provide its medical services to the approximately 150 to 180 who utilize the HRAC facilities and services on a daily basis.”

The attorney wouldn’t say if he’s planning further legal action. Meanwhile, Raville is participating in community meetings with the businesses and residents in the hopes of creating a better understanding of her mission to create a safer, cleaner, healthier city.

“I think HIV and hepatitis C rates would skyrocket," Raville said. "The streets would be littered with syringes and people would be dying left and right. We’re already in the midst of an overdose epidemic, we can do better.

"Dead drug users do not have the opportunity for recovery. When people are alive, there’s hope, and we’re a gateway to treatment for folks in our community.”

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