MOTT HAVEN — A man crouches on the damp South Bronx pavement, fishing a used syringe out of a slimy puddle, just before a jolly man dressed in a furry hat and suit rushes over to him.
“Yo, bro, stop!” Santa Claus shouts at the man in a new public service video for CitiWide Harm Reduction, a clinic for people struggling with drug use, homelessness and chronic illness. “You don’t need to use that dirty needle.”
As “Feliz Navidad” rings out in the background and the video switches from black and white to vivid Technicolor, Santa hands the man a clean, wrapped syringe, which he accepts a little skeptically.
“You’re sure you’re not a cop," he asks the Man in Red, "dressed as Santa Claus?”
So begins the festive promotional video for the nearly two-decade-old syringe exchange and health clinic on East 144th Street.
In the past year, the 7-day-a-week facility added a new physical and mental health clinic, an in-house pharmacy and a drop-in center with a lounge, café, meeting rooms and computers for its clients.
“We’re at the frontlines of trying to take care of a very marginalized population … that is highly stigmatized and a lot of people don’t care about,” said Robert Cordero, the agency’s executive director. “So we’ve got to be creative and do stuff like Santa videos.”
A pair of freelance media makers — Jonah Green and Tim Murphy — produced the video pro bono last week. Staff members and some “peers,” clients who also work at the center, served as dancers and actors.
Marlow White, a housing care manager, played the role of the man who considers using a dirty needle, but with Santa’s urging decides to avail himself of the center’s services.
White, whose 11-month-old daughter watched the staff bounce about in Santa hats during filming, said he was initially unsure whether comedy was the right approach to highlight such vital services. But when he saw the final cut, he was convinced.
“I thought to myself, ‘It was good they made it funny,’” said White, 48. “A lot of time, in the midst of people’s sufferings and sorrows, it can be hard to find laughter.”
On Tuesday, dozens of clients buzzed around the expanded center.
Some checked their Facebook accounts on computers in the new lounge. Others lined up for a lunch of chicken and rice soup and sandwiches.
A few filled prescriptions in the new pharmacy. And others sat around conference tables in sunlit rooms with exposed-brick walls and discussed topics ranging from personal banking to safe sex.
“I love it here, man,” said client Luis Diaz, 58. “It’s like home away from home.”
At the end of the Santa-syringe video, an arresting statistic flashes onscreen.
In the 17 years that CitiWide Harm Reduction has been in operation, the HIV-infection rate among South Bronx drug users has plummeted from 54 to 4 percent, according to city Health Department data cited by the center.
Cordero, the executive director, attributes this jaw-dropping decline in part to the center’s distribution of clean needles and condoms — a sometimes controversial tactic that he said is best summed up by a comment someone posted online about the Santa video.
“Whatever works,” Cordero said, quoting the comment. “That could be our mission statement.”