Illustration by Louise Leong.
Illustration by Louise Leong.

The Front Street location where the Santa Cruz needle exchange used to operate is now a meeting site for Alcoholics Anonymous.

After 14 years of operating, the Drop-In Center closed in September 2009.

By the last two weeks of September, Street Outreach Supporters (SOS) was already making home deliveries, and by October was exchanging needles at sites around Santa Cruz.

SOS is a collectively-run, all-volunteer organization that operates the needle exchange program in Santa Cruz. They provide free syringes for intravenous drug users in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases like Hepatitis B and C. Their volunteers drive vans out into neighborhoods, providing services to participants at fixed locations four days a week.

Because the organization operates without state funding, the group relies on small private grants and community fundraisers to continue these services.

“Last year state funding went from substantial to zero, but the need for needle exchange was still there,” said a volunteer who wished to remain anonymous.

On Saturday, April 3, more than 100 people, many of them UC Santa Cruz students, packed inside of a house on 215 Storey Street to raise money for SOS. Three bands played from 8 p.m. until midnight, with an audience spilling out onto the back porch and into the yard.

Events like these help keep SOS supplied with syringes, condoms and basic hygiene items like shampoo and socks.

In addition to concerts, an Alleycat bike race and a silent auction were held to help supplement several small private grants the organization has received. Because syringes are relatively inexpensive — some distributors sell them for nine cents each or less — the money raised at these events makes a big difference to the group.

Despite favorable turnouts to these fundraisers, the responses from certain parts of the community have not always been as supportive. In past years, police ticketed three volunteers, and concerns have been raised that the needle exchange program introduces more unaccounted needles into the community.

Savannah O’Neill, a fourth-year community studies major and SOS volunteer, says the group takes precautions to ensure that needles distributed by the group do not endanger the community. She remembers one concerned woman who contacted the needle exchange program after finding a syringe near her home.

SOS promptly offered to clean up the site and the situation was defused.

SOS also has other methods of limiting the hazards of discarded needles.

“People have to bring used needles to get [new] needles back,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill is one of the many students and alumni who are involved with SOS. Before the drop-in site was shut down in September 2009, two of the last three paid employees were UCSC graduates.

“The real manpower of the Drop-In Center for many years was from UCSC,” the anonymous volunteer said.

Student Health Outreach and Promotion (SHOP), the on-campus organization that promotes safer sex practices and provides free HIV testing and discounted condoms, has recently focused on this relationship between the needle exchange and UCSC students. In addition to carrying fliers for SOS sites, SHOP has also hosted workshops where volunteers from SOS educate participants about needle exchange in Santa Cruz, and larger national and global efforts.

Lidi Armenta, an HIV peer test coordinator with SHOP, said of SOS: “We are aware of needle exchange being a necessary component of harm reduction, and since SHOP is all about that, we support SOS.”