Sticking point - Page 2

Mayor Gavin Newsom has ignored proposals for safe syringe collection
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and we just didn't have the confidence that we weren't going to be vilified for it," Dennis said. "We're not just going to politically put our asses out there just because someone has an idea."

Several sources in the public health profession lamented this kind of political ass-covering. Dr. Alex Kral, a noted San Francisco epidemiologist, told us, "It's not that we don't have solutions to these problems. We have solutions. The problem is the politics.... If you take the politics out of it, we should have syringe disposal boxes in the park and wherever [IV drug users] congregate. At the very least we should have them at the edges of the park."

Even C.W. Nevius, the Chronicle columnist who stirred up the syringe controversy in the first place, supports Howe's disposal box proposal. "What's the downside of putting these boxes in?" he told us. "People might think that boxes would somehow encourage people to use drugs in the park, but the reason why [drug users] stay there would not be because there are these boxes."

Nevius added that Newsom called him after his columns came out and "yelled at me for 45 minutes.... He was very upset with the stories and the way they showed what's happening."

Ballard touted the city's aggressive new actions to clean up Golden Gate Park. He said that, in addition to the recent raids on homeless encampments, 13 new Rec and Park patrol officers will be dispatched to the park within a month, and "we're adding additional HOT [homeless outreach] teams to connect more homeless people to the services they need."

Lt. Mary Stasko at the San Francisco Police Department's Park Station explained how social workers in the HOT teams interact with park squatters during the early morning operations. "The outreach teams go with the police officers and the clean-up crews, and they tell people, 'We can put you in a bed tonight, we can give you a hot meal right now if you come with us.'

But Stasko was doubtful that sweeps alone will stop homeless drug users from returning to the park. City shelters do not permit substance use, she reasoned, meaning anyone who wants to accept the HOT teams' offers must choose immediate abstinence. "For the people who are interested in quitting, [the city's new outreach efforts] are working like a charm. But then you have the hard-core people who don't want to stop using. They're the ones who end up coming back. Those are the types that have been in the park since 1967."

Canadian epidemiologist Dr. Evan Wood cited San Francisco's "high-threshold," abstinence-only approach to services as a major factor in Golden Gate Park's chronic cycle of homelessness and substance abuse. He has been involved with implementing Vancouver's successful "safe injection site," where people can safely shoot up and dispose of their needles. Similar facilities are already widespread in Europe.

"Trying to simply eliminate these behaviors does not work," Wood went on. "You have to meet these people on their turf."

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