Pointing out the presence of contaminated needles
At the Nov. 27 Santa Cruz City Council meeting, residents fed up with local drug use, homelessness and crime flooded into the meeting just in time for the public comment period, hauling trash they had collected during their group walk to City Hall. One participant told the council that they had found dozens of syringes on their way to the meeting.
The momentum led to the creation of a Facebook group called The Clean Team!!, which was created on Monday, Dec. 3 as "a place for community members to document locations of garbage and hazardous waste so that others may find the locations and help with cleanup efforts," according to the page. As of press time Tuesday morning, the group had 124 members and several posts about needles found in various locations around town. One member posted that he found 15 dirty needles on a walk from the San Lorenzo River Mouth to Cowell's Beach. Talk of finding needles in parks, beaches and even private yards has also been prominent on the Take Back Santa Cruz Facebook page. Concerned citizens planned to visit the Tuesday, Dec. 4 Board of Supervisors meeting to request something be done about the problem.
So just how many needles are floating around Santa Cruz? The short answer is that it’s hard to say.
The city’s Parks and Recreation crew collects needles as “part of their regular maintenance efforts” and then turns them over to the Fire Department for disposal via a private contractor, says Assistant to the City Manager Scott Collins, who adds that they do not keep records of the amount of needles found.
But some local groups do track this data. As of Nov. 26, volunteers with local nonprofit Save Our Shores (SOS) had found 141 syringes during countywide beach and river cleanups in 2012. According to data records from the organization, 17 of these were collected at Seabright State Beach—the most found at any local beach. Cowell’s/Main Beach comes in second with a combined total of 13 syringes found so far this year.
But they have found the highest concentration of contaminated needles along the San Lorenzo River: 26 syringes were collected by SOS volunteers at three San Lorenzo River cleanup points during this year’s Coastal Cleanup Day, and 38 were collected from five different spots along the river during non-Coastal Cleanup Day efforts.
Discarded needles far exceed other drug paraphernalia discovered during SOS cleanups: the report given to GT listed just two non-syringe drug items found thus far in 2012 (a crack pipe at Seabright and “medication” at Sunset State Beach).
However, the organization’s total number of syringes found as of Nov. 26—141—is still lower than the 244 SOS collected in 2011 and 171 in 2010.
Downtown resident Janet Fardette, who started collecting trash along the San Lorenzo River Levee with girl friends four years ago, also reports a decrease in the number of syringes they are collecting. The group, which has grown to consist of around 12 volunteers, focuses on cleaning up the stretch of the levee between the Water and Laurel streets bridges. Fardette says they have collected 108 needles since January 2012, with 13 being the highest number collected over one weekend cleanup (in January). She says they have found a total of nine syringes in the last two months. “So, you can tell that the number of needles has decreased because the police have worked very hard, as have the Park and Rec folks, to roust these people out of the levee area,” Fardette writes in an email to GT.
The volunteer-run program Santa Cruz Syringe Access has been attempting to keep discarded, contaminated needles off of the streets ever since the Santa Cruz AIDS Project’s Drop-In Center, which provided a safe needle exchange, shut its doors in 2009 due to state funding cuts.
As a mobile operation that also offers home delivery services, the effort serves far fewer people than the Drop-In Center did, and struggles with funding. (The current schedule and more information is at shootclean.org.) Still, the organization reports collecting between 200,000 and 240,000 needles per year, with a current average of 20,000 syringes coming in per month.
Volunteer Steve Pleich shared this fact at the Nov. 27 council meeting, after stating that drug use in the community “is a public health issue the scope of which we may not know.” With increased and more stable funding, Pleich says the exchange could make a bigger dent in the issue locally.
“We haven’t generated enough money to get a fixed facility, which we’d really like to have because then we could do more interaction with the users and maybe offer them more in options or rehabilitation, rather than [them] continuing their cycle of drug use,” Pleich tells GT.
He adds that more resources would also translate into fewer needles found in public spaces—the concern loudly voiced at the Nov. 27 council meeting.
“If we had more funding and more cooperation with neighborhood groups, we could have outreach in their neighborhoods and I can guarantee you they wouldn’t find any needles in their beaches or parks or streets,” he says.
Rather “than thinking about funding a specific program,” Councilmember David Terrazas, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, believes the first step in addressing the issue should be to look at long-term solutions. He points to the upcoming Public Safety Meeting on Monday, Dec. 17 (5:30 p.m., City Council Chambers, City Hall) as an opportunity to explore options.
“Comments received [at the Nov. 27 meeting] overwhelmingly support and requested increased community safety and actions to keep our beaches and public spaces clean and free of toxic trash,” he writes to GT in an email. “For me this begins by raising expectations for our town and taking steps to ensure that the garbage, and the behavior which caused it, at Cowell's and other public spaces, never happens again.”
+SOME RELATED FACTS TO PONDER:
-336 people were admitted for treatment for methamphetamine use in Santa Cruz County in 2010/2011, according to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. This figure was 775 in 2006/2007; decreased funding for treatment may have played a role in the decrease.
-34.5 percent of Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project 2011 survey respondents said methamphetamine use had a “big impact” or “somewhat of an impact” in their neighborhood. This is up from 31 percent in 2009.
-46 percent of respondents in the San Lorenzo Valley said it had a big or "somewhat of an" impact, compared to 33.8 percent in North County and 30.9 in South County.
-4 percent of county ninth graders and 3 percent of 11th graders reported having used methamphetamines/amphetamines in the last 30 days in the 2010/2011 California Healthy Kids Survey.
-32 percent of persons admitted for substance abuse treatment in the county fiscal year beginning July 1, 2011 reported injection drug use, according to county Alcohol and Drug Program Administrator Bill Manov, Ph.D., and 28 percent reported heroin as their primary drug used.
-There were 12.4 drug-related deaths per 100,000 people in Santa Cruz County in 2010/2008, compared to 10.5 statewide. The national Healthy People goal is 11.3.
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