The Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA) has quietly operated a drop-in center and needle exchange program in the Haight for the last 10 years. Until last month, very few people besides their clients even knew they existed.
Then the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of overheated articles about used syringes littering Golden Gate Park. One of the pieces singled out HYA for handing out drug needles "by the double handful."
But the HYA and similar groups have long urged city leaders to deal with needle waste, urging them to install the type of needle collection receptacles used in other cities that share San Francisco's official "harm reduction" approach to drug use. "We've been trying to get disposal boxes [for syringes] into the park for over a year and a half," HYA executive director Mary Howe said.
Yet Mayor Gavin Newsom and his administration have ignored that advice apparently concerned about its political implications and have instead ordered police and outreach workers to crack down on the homeless.
"Since the [Chronicle] articles, a few people have decided to stroll in off the street and tell us what they think of us," Howe told the Guardian. "Clearly, they want to think that the syringe problem is on me and on the needle exchange."
But Howe and other public health experts say San Francisco's 15-year-old needle-swap program has not only dramatically contained HIV, Hepatitis C, and other deadly diseases among IV drug users, it also has actually reduced the number of cast-off needles in public spaces.
Santa Cruz, New York, Baltimore, Vancouver, and many other cities feature disposal boxes in drug hot spots. New York State Department of Health spokesperson Claire Pospisil told us her agency has more than 80 such receptacles around the state. While Newsom has borrowed get-tough programs like community court (for quality-of-life offenses generally committed by the homeless) and some aspects of his Care Not Cash plan from New York, his administration nixed requests to put the boxes in.
Instead, shortly after the first Chronicle articles appeared in late July, the city launched another crackdown on people sleeping in the park, as other mayors before him have done during election years. But several public health and law enforcement professionals told us the raids will never rid the park of addicts looking for a safe place to fix or the occasional used needle that they leave behind.
"It's one thing to sweep the park and displace an entire community if you have someplace to put them," Howe argued. "But they don't have any place to put them."
Howe said her attempts to have syringe containers placed in the park are consistent with the San Francisco Health Commission's seven-year-old "harm-reduction" mandate, which calls on city health workers and city-funded contractors like needle-exchange programs to minimize, as much as possible, the health dangers associated with drug abuse. Used needles, Howe contends, count as one of these dangers.
But Newsom spokesperson Nathan Ballard confirmed by e-mail that the administration has considered and rejected the idea for now. "The mayor is not eager to put such boxes in the park," Ballard wrote. He added that Newsom has asked the Health Department to consider installing "receptacles ... in the right places," but when we asked him in a follow-up e-mail where such "right places" might be, he did not respond.
Rose Dennis at the Recreation and Park Department said that, in the past, the department "floated the idea" of disposal boxes at public meetings. But when it became clear that the containers would not be politically popular, the department quickly gave up on them. "People were really, profoundly opposed to it ...