Group looks to increase syringe exchange locations

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

‘Harm reduction’ model concerning to some

WATSONVILLE — The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is mulling a request by a Santa Cruz-based grassroots organization to increase the number of sites where new syringes will be available to drug addicts, in addition to supplies for injecting drugs and the overdose reversal drug Naloxone. 

If approved, the move would allow the Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County to operate at four new sites, including the Salvation Army at 214 Union Street in Watsonville.

The application also calls for mobile services in Santa Cruz, Felton and Watsonville, where volunteers would pass out syringes and other supplies in the areas around San Juan Road and Porter Road across the Pajaro Bridge in Pajaro.

CDPH is taking public comment on the proposal through May 24. After that, the agency will have 30 days to make a decision.

Always a sore subject among county residents, the issue of needle distribution came to the forefront recently when workers from the City of Santa Cruz cleaning up the closed Gateway encampment collected numerous used syringes that were reportedly discarded on the ground.

Some 200 people are believed to have lived at the unsanctioned homeless camp.

Photos shared on social media during the cleanup showed volunteers holding buckets full of used syringes.

But just how many needles were collected – and whether they were properly disposed of – is still a matter of debate.

According to Harm Reduction Coalition organizer Denise Elerick, the number of improperly stored syringes collected from the ground was in the hundreds, not thousands that were reported on social media.

According to Elerick, the organization removed more than 10,000 properly stored used syringes from the camp within a two-week period before it closed.

A safe disposal kiosk at the camp was yielding about 25 pounds of syringes every other week, she said.

But those numbers are cold comfort for some residents, who say that any used syringes found on trails, beaches and other areas are unacceptable.

David Giannini, who serves on the Needle Solution Team for Take Back Santa Cruz (TBSC), said that workers removing rubbish from Gateway Camp stopped counting when they had picked up 2,000 used syringes.

In a Facebook message, that team asked TBSC members to attend the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday and ask them to register their opposition to the proposal.

Volunteers from the Needle Solutions Team have found 23,000 improperly discarded syringes countywide, Giannini said, adding that is likely a “fairly conservative” number.

The situation at Gateway, he said, is a perfect example that private needle distribution is a bad idea.

Instead, Giannini said that a one-for-one exchange – requiring drug users to turn in a used syringe to get a new one – would keep the numbers down.

“That would go a long way to reduce the number of syringes we see now,” he said.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend said that syringe distribution programs should be more tightly regulated than the one run by the Harm Reduction group.

“These programs should be run and managed by County Health where the community can have confidence that all public needs, from reduction of communicable diseases to reducing needle waste to reducing the number of those addicted are met,” he said. “A program, run by an independent group, wouldn’t have the same oversight through elected officials, public reporting and opportunities for community input that the County program has, which significantly undermines confidence.”

According to Elerick, her services are meant to supplement those of the county, a team effort meant to combat the ever-growing problem of opioid addiction.

“Every homeless camp cleanup always involves syringe cleanup because we’re in the middle of an epidemic,” she said. “There is room in Santa Cruz County for more services.”

In the harm reduction model, volunteers recognize that drug use is inevitable, and that users should have clean supplies with which to ingest their drugs.

This includes sterile syringes and supplies such as tie-offs and spoons to “cook” heroin. It also includes education, doses of Naloxone and medical referrals for those who want it, Elerick said. 

This is a way to reduce infection rates for such diseases as HIV and Hepatitis C, diseases that can spread outside the drug-using community.

“Our goal is to remove used syringes from the community, to make sure people have access to Naloxone and to make sure they have what they need to use as safely as possible,” Elerick said. “If we stop giving people supplies, they don’t stop using, they share.”

Elerick said her services are also aimed at people reluctant to use government services, or who are unable to access them due to physical infirmity, location or hours of operation.

While Elerick does not require a one-for-one needle exchange, she said that the amount of used syringes she does take in more than makes up for the thousands she hands out.

“I would give out 2,000 and I would come back with way more than 2,000,” she said. “The community is shocked at hundreds of syringes, but what they don’t understand is that tens of thousands of syringes were used in that camp,”

And Elerick said her efforts are working.

“We do not have an HIV outbreak,” she said. “We do not have a hepatitis C outbreak right now.”

“We all suffer the consequences when people contract a disease like this,” she added. “It affects the entire community.”

The efforts of HRCSCC are separate from the syringe exchange services offered by Santa Cruz County. According to a report by the Health Services Agency, 173 people visited the clinics in Watsonville and Santa Cruz in March. During that time, the county dispensed 61,906 syringes in March, and took in an estimated 92,921.

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Giannini describes TBSC as “a collection of folks that would like to see Santa Cruz be a safe and clean place for all our residents, whether they are housed or not.”

A former drug addict, he said he understands the struggle of dealing with that population.

Instead of handing out handfuls of syringes, he suggests sticking to a one-for-one model, or offering a returnable deposit for used syringes, similar to the recycling laws that keep cans and bottles off the ground.

“That would go a long way to reduce the number of syringes we see now,” he said.

Another criticism of the harm reduction model, Giannini said, is that it does not offer the medical, mental and addiction services that the county does, or the HIV and Hepatitis C testing.

In county-run clinics, drug users coming to get clean syringes can talk to staffers who can help determine what services they might need, thus building personal relationships, Giannini said.

“It really takes a personal relationship for that to happen,” Giannini said.

When someone distributes supplies in the street, he said, that is far less likely.

“We don’t really think that the Harm Reduction people are really reducing harm in the drug-using population,” he said. “We think they actually increase harm.”

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To submit a comment about the application by the Harm Reduction Coalition, email [email protected]

For information, visit bit.ly/2nCoeCp or bit.ly/2WLS47A.

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