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SF's Needle Disposal Program is Effective but Not Always Welcome 

Wednesday, Sep 9 2015
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Conspicuously absent from this summer's tirade against the homeless — which began with the Chronicle and peaked with Mayor Lee's vow to bar the homeless from the city's Super Bowl festivities — are complaints about needles on the street.

We've read about poop and urine ad nauseam, but kvetching about dirty needles, once de rigeur for declamations about the sorry state of our streets, has been absent from the public shame crusade.

That's because despite a supposed spike in people on the street, there are fewer needles. Over the past six months, 311 has reported a decrease in needle-related complaints, says Eileen Loughran of the Department of Public Health. She credits the city's sharps container program, whereby intravenous drug users can dispose of needles in locked steel boxes. There are 10 such boxes in the city, all but four of them in the Tenderloin.

The needle-disposal program, launched in 2009, is a collaboration between DPH and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which is tasked with checking the boxes twice a week. Each box holds 200 to 300 syringes (the largest, at GLIDE, holds a thousand). Hollis Cambodia from the San Francisco Drugs Users Union deems the boxes "100 percent effective," so much so that "dozens more" are needed elsewhere in the city.

Despite their effectiveness, sharps containers aren't always welcome — even in the Tenderloin. To install a new container, every neighbor and business within 300 feet must approve. Katie Bouche of the SFAF says some neighbors fear that installing a box will entice drug users to loiter.

Then there's the matter of pacing. Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, says her organization was denied a sharps container on its block of Turk Street, despite having "the enthusiastic blessings" of the neighbors. According to Loughran, the Coalition's request was denied because 311 didn't support that stretch of Turk between Hyde and Larkin being a "hotspot" for discarded needles (the closest boxes are three blocks away).

"Plus, we can't have four or five boxes all going up at once," she adds.

This month, DPH and the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development began tallying used needles in UN Plaza in Civic Center. There are no sharps containers there, but as a locus of opiate overdoses (driven by a surge of fentanyl in the city's heroin market), UN Plaza could be the 11th location in the city's sharps container program.

"A box won't necessarily solve all issues, it's just one mechanism among multiple approaches," Loughran says.

Needle-exchange programs are another mechanism, but after business hours, options for disposal are scant. And outside of the Tenderloin, they're almost nonexistent.

"Most people want boxes in the TL," Bouche says, "but would there be a different response in other neighborhoods? We just don't know."

About The Author

Jeremy Lybarger

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