Joe Donovan knows a thing or two about hard living. A few years ago the Raleigh-based veteran was diagnosed with a rare adrenal disorder, Addison’s Disease, which can cause fainting spells that require an emergency injection. Since his diagnosis in 2004, Donovan has been required to carry emergency medication and a syringe on him at all times, as well as to wear a bracelet explaining the disorder and how to administer the injections.
Not long after his diagnosis and the discovery of a tumor on his pituitary gland, Donovan lost his job. Soon after, with pending surgery and medical bills piling up, he became homeless. Over the next five years he was homeless twice, for as long as two years at a time. Living in homeless shelters with nothing but a backpack and some clothes, Donovan had many things to worry about, but among his concerns were the syringes he kept in his backpack along with the emergency medication. As a veteran, he obtained the syringes from the VA for his disorder and had every right to carry them, but because he was and subject to the same stereotypes about drug use that plague many homeless people, he often worried about run-ins with the police. Would they believe his story that the syringes were for a medical condition?
“Homeless people are more likely to be stopped and asked questions by the police,” explains Donovan. “There are assumptions that any homeless person with a syringe must be an addict. Many officers are educated about syringes for medical reasons other than diabetes, but some law enforcement actions come from closed assumptions about who people are based on outward appearance.”
Donovan understands the stress of carrying syringes, which could lead to misinterpretations about their use during an encounter with some officers. Fortunately, in 2009 he received a housing voucher for homeless veterans and has since been able to rejoin the work force and get back on his feet. He can now be found in a suit and tie walking the halls of the NC General Assembly in his new advocacy position. He is interested in a new piece of legislation, House Bill 850, which pertains to syringe possession.
Under current law, police officers are allowed to arrest a suspect for possession of drug paraphernalia if the officer suspects that a syringe or other object might be used for illicit substances. But if the HB850 passes, a person who gives up syringes and sharp objects prior to search would not be prosecuted for possession of paraphernalia. The bill aims to encourage honesty between a suspect and law enforcement, as well as to reduce the incidence of needle-stick injuries to law enforcement and exposure to blood borne disease, such as HIV and hepatitis C. Currently one in three law enforcement officers will suffer a needle-stick injury at some point during their careers. HB850 could do much to improve the health and safety of law enforcement, as well as provide some relief to people like Donovan who carry syringes for medical reasons or otherwise.
Donovan supports HB850 as a practical bill that benefits both law enforcement and people who carry syringes. “Now that I look like your typical middle class guy again, I don’t expect to attract attention from law enforcement that could lead to questioning,” says Donovan. “But I understand what homeless people and others go through. I’d like to be that guy in the legislature who challenges the stereotype that only drug addicts carry syringes.”