Community leaders voice opposition to syringe distribution

A county official collects used syringes at Camp Ross during a sweeping clean up of the homeless camp on Highway 1 at River Street in Santa Cruz on May 10. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian File

Group pulls application to distribute 'harm reduction' supplies

WATSONVILLE — A grassroots organization that was seeking permission from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to pass out clean syringes in four places around Santa Cruz County has pulled its application, Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills said Wednesday.

The Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County (HRCSCC) applied to the CDPH to operate at four sites, including the Salvation Army at 214 Union St. in Watsonville, and to operate a mobile unit in Pajaro.

The application would also have allowed HRCSCC to hand out other “harm reduction” supplies such as clean injection supplies and the overdose reversal drug Naloxone.

HRCSCC organizer Denise Elerick is out of the country, and did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

Officials from the Salvation Army in Watsonville said May 17 that the organization never agreed to allow HRCSCC to operate at its facility.

The efforts of the coalition drew criticism from community members concerned about needles found on the ground around the county.

Capt. Harold Laubach, who oversees the location, said that the Salvation Army supports “harm reduction” efforts, but “not at the increased risk for our community.”

“The Salvation Army did not allow or approve the inclusion of our name, property or program with the Harm Reduction Group and their application to distribute syringes anywhere in Santa Cruz County,” Laubach stated in an email.

HRCSCC organizer Denise Elerick said that a manager at the Salvation Army contacted her months ago and asked for her help with what he saw as a growing problem.

At the time, she said she wasn’t aware of the leadership structure of the secular organization, which places a “captain” in command of several community locations.

“I didn’t ask to speak to a supervisor, and I should have,” she said. “That’s on me.” 

HRCSCC previously passed out thousands of syringes at Gateway Camp in Santa Cruz before the city closed it. 

Organizations using the “harm reduction” philosophy believe that providing clean supplies such as syringes will prevent the sharing of dirty needles, and thereby stop diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C.

This includes handing out syringes without adhering to the one-for-one requirement that many governmental jurisdictions use.

Opponents say this leads to increased numbers of used syringes found on the ground throughout the county, and does nothing to help addicted people.

According to Elerick, treatment is a preferred option, but not when it’s forced. Many addicts, she points out, have already tried treatment and failed.

“The goal is not to make people do something,” she said. “It’s to help them stay alive and make better health decisions, so that when they choose treatment they will be free from HIV and other diseases.”

The “free giveaway” of syringes, Laubach said, removes motivation of addicts to clean up their dirty needles. As an example, he pointed to the recently closed Gateway camp in Santa Cruz, where workers reported finding thousands of used syringes littering the ground.

Laubach was not alone in his opposition to HRCSCC’s proposal.

Police chiefs from Watsonville and Santa Cruz also stated their opposition to the proposal, as did Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart.

“I do not support a new or secondary program where there will be little to no oversight and no other services will be offered,” Hart wrote in a letter to the CDPH. “Community members across our county are speaking out against this secondary program and it is clear there is very little community support, will or tolerance for this program.”

Hart called Santa Cruz County a “compassionate and caring community.”

“However, many residents are weary of the drug abuse that has plagued our county for many years,” he said. “Residents want to visit our parks, beaches and open spaces without fear of syringe litter.”

Watsonville Police Chief David Honda questioned data in HRCSCC’s application, which refers to a “significant overdose increase” in the City of Watsonville in 2018. But according to Honda, there was no increase between 2017-18. In addition, the majority of overdoses that occurred were caused by pills and alcohol, Honda said.

Honda stressed that he supports programs that help addicts, but added that does not support the application by HRCSCC.

“… we have a responsibility to protect the balance of our community from the hazards of syringe litter that has surfaced in our sidewalks, our trails and our parks,” he said in a letter to CDPH. “I believe this program would exacerbate the syringe litter issue.”

According to Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills, county officials gave out 597,567 new syringes, and collected 823,910 used ones from March 2015 through February 2017.

Mills said officially sanctioned programs run by the County can be effective in battling addiction and the diseases that come along with it.

“For a needle distribution volunteer program to be acceptable and have the confidence of the community, county oversight and community accountability is important,” he said. “I cannot support a needle exchange expansion without local oversight and accountability, a plan to reduce discarded needles and ensuring the effectiveness of reducing infection rates. When these standards are met, I’ll gladly support a harm deduction program expansion.”

Watsonville Mayor Francisco Estrada and Santa Cruz Mayor Martine Watkins also voiced their opposition to the program.

Elerick said the controversy behind the issue has made it a political hot potato for local leaders as they seek to juggle public service with community concern.

“Sadly it has become a political issue,” she said. “It’s not about overdoses, it’s not about health access or disposal and all the things it should be about. We have a crisis in our community.”

Elerick said that she wants HRCSCC to supplement the services provided by the county in an effort to battle a growing epidemic of opioid deaths.

“There are no signs that we have turned the corner on the opioid epidemic,” she said. “It’s an incredibly dynamic situation, and there is no one solution.”

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