Brian Hutchinson: Finding used drug needles in public spaces has become the new normal for Vancouver
Dirty needles found near children's playground in Vancouver's West End
Shiloh Sukkau was shocked at first. Then resigned. Now she’s upset. Same with Joel Reid and Jessica Leung, and now they’re speaking out.
Three people, unknown to each other, living and working in different parts of the city. Finding dirty needles in public places. Kids’ spaces.
In this permissive city, where open drug use is sadly common, people have finally reached a boiling point. They’re fed up with finding dangerous materials left behind by intravenous drug users, whose numbers in Vancouver exceed 12,000, according to local health authorities.
Dirty needles, called “sharps,” along with cooking gear, water ampoules and rubber ties are the most common detritus.
The problem isn’t confined to Vancouver’s drug-infested Downtown Eastside. Used needles with trace amounts of heroin, cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, prescription opioids and blood are turning up across the city.
On one Vancouver street corner, residents were recently confronted with discarded sharps and, on a wall next to them, the image of a happy face, drawn in blood.
Here’s the brutal irony, an unintended consequence. Millions of needles are handed out in Vancouver every year, more than in any other Canadian city. Free needle exchanges funded by taxpayers and private donors are considered an effective form of harm reduction; clean, disposable “rigs” can help prevent the spread of such diseases as HIV and hepatitis.
Most of the used needles from exchange programs are collected and disposed of properly. But every year, more than 100,000 needles are carelessly discarded outside, creating hazards for the rest of us. Last year, the number of needles recovered outside was a staggering 250,732, according to Vancouver Coastal Health.
Shiloh Sukkau is a young mother with an eight-year-old child attending school in Vancouver’s West End, adjacent to the downtown core. On Saturday, she found a used needle lying in a children’s garden that she and other parents built in a city park. Her daughter’s school, Lord Roberts Annex, takes up about one-quarter of the same block.
Sukkau had previously found needles left in and around the schoolyard. On each occasion she called a local social-service agency, the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), for help.
The PHS has a needle exchange and recovery program and will send someone to collect used rigs from city parks and other places. The City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Park Board and other agencies also offer needle-recovery programs and daily “sweeps.” Clearly, though, these efforts aren’t enough.
It’s really upsetting, especially because I’ve been trying to encourage … children to use the (garden) spaceFor Sukkau, finding a needle in the school’s outdoor garden plot was a tipping point. “It’s really upsetting, especially because I’ve been trying to encourage other parents, teachers and children to
use the (garden) space,” she says. “Now I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”
The morning after her discovery, Sukkau’s partner found eight more needles in the same garden, which children had recently planted with vegetables.
Enough, they said. Sukkau went public this week, contacting media and local politicians, asking why residents are forced to deal themselves with Vancouver’s drug-use problem. With few exceptions, no one in a position of authority or elected office got back to her.
Joel Reid teaches music at a Montessori school not far from Vancouver’s False Creek. He often takes his young students to a nearby park but first, he has to inspect the place for needles.
“It’s become a hot spot,” Reid says.
He has also encountered people shooting up outside his school; in those cases, he asks the drug users to move on. “They are very compliant, most of them,” says Reid.
Fortunately, he’s not aware of any needle-related injuries sustained by students. “The kids are pretty aware. I’ll show them a needle if I find one, and warn them not to touch one if they find one themselves.”
Jessica Leung and her family moved to an Eastside neighbourhood last year. She finds discarded needles as many as four times a week. “Places that families frequent are being overrun with sharps,” she says.
The greater, underlying problem, she feels, is “prolific drug use.”
Like Sukkau and Reid, she’s found such agencies as the PHS helpful at collecting sharps. But the situation persists, and, she says, it’s getting worse.
Some have suggested installing plastic needle disposal boxes on street corners, in parks and inside public washrooms. Leung and the others aren’t convinced they would solve anything.
Would drug users who currently drop their needles on the ground suddenly change their behaviour and put their needles safely inside a box? Would a homeowner want a needle box placed outside their house? Fat chance of that.
There is no simple solution. In Vancouver, scattered, dirty needles are approaching “normal” status, sad facts of city life. It seems we’re stuck with that.