An­swers de­manded on nee­dle prob­lem

The Prince George Citizen - - Extra - Cit­i­zen staff [email protected]­i­t­i­zen.ca

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.

CIT­I­ZEN PHOTO BY JAMES DOYLE

Shown here are used nee­dles lo­cated in an al­ley be­tween Que­bec Street and Do­min­ion Street last week.

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