Illustration by Christine Hipp.
Illustration by Christine Hipp.

What do a recent spike in violent crime, used syringes and the homeless have in common? These three issues have spurred the Santa Cruz City Council to pass new public safety legislation, in the process igniting a debate over the way in which Santa Cruz ought to approach the topic. Street Outreach Supporters (SOS), a local syringe exchange, has become the focal point of conflicting viewpoints in the debate, as SOS comes under fire from the city council.

During a meeting on Feb. 12, the council voted unanimously in favor of measures intended to address crime, drugs and homelessness in Santa Cruz. Along with a decision to increase the budget of the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD), allowing them to hire more police, the legislation also establishes a six-month-long citizen’s task force on public safety and will give $50,000 to the Parks and Recreation Department to be used in cleaning up parks and beaches marred by trash and criminal activity.

Opponents of the new measures argue the city is headed down the wrong path, turning to greater police presence instead of preventative care and treatment programs, while supporters claim that getting tough makes sense in the wake of the recent Santa Cruz crime spike.

However, the proposition that’s drawn the most criticism is the city council’s ongoing discussion on how to regulate SOS.

A Sharp Issue

Meeting in a closed session on Jan. 22, the city council decided to direct city attorney John Barisone to shut down an SOS location in the lower Ocean area where the exchange had operated out of a van in a laundromat parking lot for 24 years.

This left the county health facility on Emeline Avenue, where the exchange operates three days out of the week, as the sole location in Santa Cruz where used syringes can be exchanged for clean ones.

A steep increase in used syringes found on beaches, parks and around local schools this month have brought the exchange’s services to heightened levels of scrutiny. Still, there is disagreement over how to handle the situation, with supporters of SOS arguing that shutting down the exchange will lead to more used needles, not less, and opponents saying the exchange needs tighter regulation and shouldn’t be allowed to hand out as many needles as it currently does.

“We acknowledge the clear public health benefits of a needle exchange,” said five-term city councilwoman Cynthia Mathews, “but we want to continue discussions that are also responsive to the legitimate concerns of the community.”

According to the mission statement on the SOS website, the exchange aims to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases by providing clean needles to those who need them. The organization’s policy, in accordance with California state law, can give out up to 30 free needles.

Deputy Chief Rick Martinez, who represented many concerned citizens at Tuesday’s meeting, insisted that a “devil may care” attitude was being encouraged by the excessive needle distribution. Stating the stance of the SCPD, Martinez insisted that stricter regulations, such as a one-for-one exchange policy and a possible shift of the exchange’s location to a non-residential neighborhood, are necessary for the exchange to continue to operate.

“These hardcore addicts have to support their habit, and they are not doing it by panhandling,” Martinez said. “They are doing it by committing crime.”

Local journalist and homeless advocate Robert Norse said restrictive policies could do more civic harm than good in the long run.

“Restricting the exchange would pose a greater public health hazard,” Norse said. “If city council wanted to alleviate the issue, they would have given that money [used to increase the number of police officers] to the needle exchange instead.”

Hilary McQuie, California director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, an organization focused on issues of drug usage and public health, cited a recent study comparing the needle exchange programs of Chicago and Hartford. The study found that Chicago’s program, which operated with a 50-to-1 conversion rate, collected nearly 90 percent of the city’s used needles. Hartford’s conservative 1-to-1 model, by contrast, fell below 50 percent.

In an opinion piece on the Santa Cruz Sentinel — a forum where the debate between supporters and opponents of SOS have repeatedly aired their respective views — McQuie said SOS should be allowed to adopt more liberal needle policies, not less.

Proposals have also been made to increase the amount of drop-boxes around Santa Cruz where used needles can be safely disposed of, as well as increased oversight of SOS by Santa Cruz’s Health Services Agency.

Through the Eye of a Needle

Local volunteers calling themselves “The Clean Team” have reported finding used syringes by the hundreds, both on public beaches and the area surrounding Georgiana Bruce Kirby Preparatory School, over the past two weekends. The team gathered all of the needles into a large woven basket and uploaded a photo onto Facebook.

The recreational area of Pogonip also has historically been host to a number of campsites and is often littered with used syringes, a situation brought to light during the course of a string of raids on homeless camps in the area by SCPD last summer.

Citing the number of used needles found around Santa Cruz, critics of the local needle exchange point to Santa Clara County’s program as an alternative, which provides half as many needles on a monthly basis to a population that is six times the size of Santa Cruz’s.

For some though, the availability of clean syringes is literally a life or death situation, leading many to seek reforms that do not limit the amount that SOS can hand out.

“The needle exchange saved my life,” said Robert Fryling, a Santa Cruz resident born and raised in the area. He lost both his mother and brother to HIV, which doctors presumed to be contracted via the sharing of used needles.

More Than Skin Deep

Needle exchanges have been the most effective way to facilitate proper used needle disposal, according to a recent study conducted in Miami, Fla. Though SOS denied an interview, according to its website their collection rate is nearly 20,000 used syringes a month, enough to fill an oil drum every week. The Sharp Solutions program, Santa Cruz County’s needle collection agency, reports an average of 200 a month by contrast.

Ideally needle exchanges also function as a method of recovery for drug users seeking a way to get clean, according to SOS’s website. Studies held in Seattle last year suggest that needle exchange participants are five times more likely to enter drug treatment than non-participant injection drug users.

The used syringes in Santa Cruz pose health concerns, but according to SOS’s supporters a lack of clean needles may unleash a brand new batch of health issues, such as the spread of AIDS and other terminal illnesses.

“It’s only because I was clean [from disease] that I could salvage my life from the ashes,” Fryling said.

The city council will continue working with the Santa Cruz City Health Department and the county to establish rules governing the last remaining needle exchange in the weeks ahead.