Homeless in Vancouver: Syringes in Fairview—now easier to find than needles in a haystack

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      Up until recently it has been the job of someone working for the Portland Housing Society to jump in their car and come collect the occasional abandoned syringes found littering sidewalks and back alleys in the South Granville area of Fairview.

      On Friday (August 24), however, collecting hazardous “sharps” into a specially designed plastic bucket was a job for Reid, one of the Paladin security guards employed by the South Granville Business Improvement Area (SGBIA) to patrol the shopping strip and keep a helpful eye out for any trouble or distress.

      Reid explained that previously—upon an improperly discarded syringe sighting—he, or someone else from the South Granville BIA, would call the Portland Housing Society (PHS), located in the Downtown Eastside. The PHS would then dispatch its mobile needle exchange–disposal team to come and collect the potentially hazardous waste.

      The PHS Mobile Needle Exchange/Disposal has been operating citywide since 2011, distributing harm-reduction supplies (including clean needles and condoms) and recovering used rigs (hypodermic needles and the other implements used to inject drugs). In 2012 alone, the PHS mobile service retrieved 1.6 million used needles.

      The PHS says that anyone, anywhere in Vancouver, can call on the services of its mobile needle exchange–disposal—either by phoning the hotline: 1-604-657-6561 (7 a.m. to 3 a.m., 365 days a year) or by emailing: needlevan@phs.ca.

      However, according to Reid, the PHS has decided that the SGBIA is now calling for needle collection so frequently that the business group needs to graduate to safely collecting discarded needles on its own.

      That’s why I saw Reid this morning, in the back alley on the southeast side of the intersection of South Granville and West Broadway, wearing cut-and-puncture-resistant Kevlar safety gloves and holding a sharps container provided to the SGBIA by PHS.

      The area around the upscale shopping street of South Granville has finally been recognized as a “shooting gallery” in its own right!

      Signs that the West Side has a needle litter problem

      “No needles” warns a sign attached to trap for Japanese beetles placed in a Mount Pleasant alley on June 4.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      In June—when I saw the first of many insect traps that were placed in Mount Pleasant back alleys by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to monitor for the presence of invasive Japanese beetles—I automatically mistook the bright, yellow and green plastic container to be some kind of needle box.

      “About time,” I thought.

      But upon closer inspection I saw that I was wrong—in part because the insect trap was tagged with an unmistakable sign warning (in both words and pictures): “NO NEEDLES.”

      The fact that the CFIA felt compelled to tell passersby not to put used syringes (as opposed to, say, cigarette butts) into its back alley insect traps located off Broadway in Mount Pleasant says something.

      If nothing else, I think that it speaks to the long-overdue need to install actual needle boxes at known hot spots for injection drug use along the South Granville and West Broadway corridors—an area running from Kitsilano through Fairview and into the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

      According to the Portland Housing Society, the 28 needle boxes situated in alleys throughout the Downtown Eastside have measurably reduced needle litter.

      “Don’t throw the uncapted (sp) syringe in the garbage. Thank you.” Washroom of Waves Coffee, West Broadway and Spruce, July 12.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      As things stand now, the lack of safe needle-disposal options on the West Side of Vancouver means that washroom wastebaskets in fast food restaurants and coffee shops along South Granville and West Broadway often double as needle boxes.

      This fact injects medically hazardous garbage into the general waste stream and every day puts unsuspecting restaurant employees and waste handlers (who are neither trained nor equipped to handle biohazards), at risk of scary needle stick injuries.

      Remembering the real purpose of harm reduction

      There is a prospect of a person suddenly contracting a life-shortening disease in the instant they are stuck by a dirty needle in the garbage or on the ground (both places where a syringe should never be). This serves to illustrate the intent and importance to society of harm-reduction strategies. Many people have it backward where harm reduction is concerned.

      Yes, it starts with reducing the harms to drug users themselves but harm reduction does this in order to reduce the harms of drug use to society as a whole, not just (as social conservatives might assert) to pamper drug users.

      Look at it this way: by trying to protect the illicit drug-using minority from the harms of the drugs they use—by providing this group with clean needles and condoms and safe places to inject drugs and safe places to dispose of dirty needles—harm reduction is succeeding at protecting the rest of us from drug users and the harms that they can cause, such as crime and the spread of disease, from a dirty needle, let’s say.

      In less than 20 years, harm reduction has proven that its evidence-based strategies work, saving tens of thousands of lives, preventing the spread of disease and bringing new hope, dignity and opportunity to marginalized drug users.

      That’s a lot more more than can be said for drug criminalization which, after a hundred years, has done little more than increase drug use, suffering, and death.

      The bottom line is that we need the harm reduction of safe-needle disposal sites where injection drug users are in Vancouver, not just where they are in the Downtown Eastside.

      We need some needle boxes on the West Side of Vancouver.

      It’s bad enough that there is not one safe injection site on the West Side, denying us a few inexpensive needle boxes as well puts everyone living south of False Creek at needless risk.

      Failing to provide solutions does not make problems go away, it just allows them to get worse. 

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.