Answers demanded on needle problem
Retired businessman Barry Boehmer says he has $10,000 pledged to start up a buyback program where people would collect needles and bring them to a depot where they would be paid on a piece-rate basis.
It’s an idea Northern Health does not endorse.
Reanne Sanford, the regional nursing lead for harm reduction with Northern Health, raised a number of concerns. They include users simply taking needles from Northern Health and handing them over to the depot for a profit, creating waste. She also questioned the ability of the depot to safely handle large numbers of needles.
But perhaps most important is the worry that users will lose the connection with the people who can help point them in the right direction should they want to find ways to end their habit because they choose to go to the depot rather than Northern Health to drop off their used needles.
She also notes that of the 450,000 needles Northern Health handed out during 2017, 400,000 were returned or nearly 90 per cent. She also contends many of the remaining 50,000 have been disposed of safely via such things as the sharps containers installed around the city.
But Boehmer, who hopes to have something up and running before the snow falls, remains skeptical saying he’s heard too many horror stories about needles found behind businesses and in school yards.
“Northern Health, in my opinion, is doing a tremendous job if there is 90 per cent being picked up,” he said. “What we want to do is make sure we work together and, in a positive frame of mind, get the other 10 per cent and get it eradicated.”
Sanford favours so-called “peer-run models” and pointed to a program now up and running in Quesnel as an example.
Since May, a crew of four people described as “vulnerable to homelessness” have been patrolling Quesnel’s streets picking up discarded syringes from around businesses before they open for the day as well as around school grounds.
Known as the Clean Team, they have picked up 1,782 needles as well as 382 bags of garbage and 32 bags of recycling over the past four months. A previous version of the team that worked on an irregular, on-call basis “picked up thousands,” Clean Team coordinator Jenny McDougall said. “This year, it’s gone down I’d say half at least.”
The venture, which is being run on a pilot program basis, is funded through a partnership between the City of Quesnel Housing and Northern Health. It has a budget of about $30,000, with each of the crew members working eight hours per week for $15 per hour.
The venture has won approval from the community’s mayor, Bob Simpson, who otherwise has been an outspoken critic of much the federal and provincial government’s strategy to deal with the ongoing opioid crisis, which he has called ineffective.
“I haven’t seen a Facebook post or anything on needles for a long time and we were getting it almost on a daily basis before we put the team in place,” he said.
Key to its success, in Simpson’s view, is that MacDougall also hands out what he called the “harm reduction kits” at the community’s native friendship centre.
“Because of that connection, she is in the face of individuals coming in to make sure that what they will be taking they will be careful about using,” Simpson said.
As for establishing a buyback program, Simpson “wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.”
Simpson said the idea was given a look when it was first raised by a local financial institution. He came away echoing many of the concerns raised by Northern Health about improper handling of needles.
Perhaps the closest Prince George has to something like Quesnel’s Clean Team is the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Team (DART). Among its many contracts is one with the city to patrol 7.5 kilometres of trails along the two riverbanks, picking up needles whenever crew members see them.
DART coordinator Glen Grant said he’s willing to expand the effort, noting that in addition to about a dozen workers he has a fleet of seven trucks.
“It would be very simple for us to put a route together... and every morning I could have a crew of people out at six or seven o’clock in the morning where the problem sites are and we could be checking those before anybody ever started (their day),” Grant said.
Mayor Lyn Hall said discarded needles are an issue and not just in the city’s downtown. He also predicted it will be a major topic of discussion when the new council begins budget discussions in January.
But he also stressed the city’s bylaw services department and parks crews have been providing clean up services.
Indeed, it could be said the origin of the latest flare up in the controversy was the success of a sweep two bylaw services officers carried out in the downtown in August.
Rather than simply responding to complaints called into city hall, they went out to various hot spots around downtown and gathered enough needles to fill three five-gallon buckets.
A picture presented during a city council meeting of a pile of the needles they collected drew a strong reaction from Coun. Brian Skakun, who had some harsh words for Northern Health.
Skakun intends to raise the issue at the next Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention, saying Prince George is not the only community stuck with the problem. In Cowichan, more than 1,000 needles were pulled from the local river and shoreline during a recent community cleanup, he noted.
He questioned why municipalities should be responsible for the cost of cleaning up a problem tied to provinciallyfunded health authorities.
“I would think the province could easily tell them, ‘look, if you want all your funding, you’re going to have to live up to certain commitments but it’s definitely something I’ll be working on with the other municipalities because it’s not only a local issue, it’s a provincial issues,” Skakun said.
Councilor Brian Skakun questioned why municipalities should be responsible for the cost of cleaning up a problem tied to provincially-funded health authorities.
Shown here are used needles located in an alley between Quebec Street and Dominion Street last week.