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SF lawmaker calls for needle disposal boxes in public parks

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Supervisor Jane Kim last week called on Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg to install needle disposal boxes in San Francisco parks. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Pressure is mounting for the head of the Recreation and Park Department to rethink an unwillingness to install needle disposal boxes in public parks as supporters argue the devices will reduce syringes found in those cherished open spaces.

There is nothing new about hypodermic needles found strewn about the city landscape nor is there anything new about complaints from residents about them, some of whom take photos and report the needles to San Francisco’s 311 service complaint line.

There are an estimated 22,000 intravenous drug users in The City and access to new syringes is available as a proven policy to reduce the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.

But having more places for drug users to safely dispose of their needles could have the desired effect of reducing syringe litter. To that end, Supervisor Jane Kim last week pressed the head of the Recreation and Park Department, Phil Ginsburg, to install safe needle disposal boxes in public parks.

While there are locations around The City to safely dispose of needles and some businesses have started to install safe needle disposal boxes in bathroom stalls, such as Target at Mission and Fourth streets, Rec and Park does not provide such a service.

“I know this is a tough discussion point, but I do think it’s important to have needle disposal boxes at our parks,” Kim said. “Not to encourage people to use, just so that there is a safe disposal site.”

She continued, “I just hate getting the reports that kids are seeing it in the playground. Of course I want the activity and behavior to end, but I just think having a safe disposal box will help at least divert some of those needles into an appropriate location.”

Ginsburg, however, called it a “vexing issue and a vexing policy discussion” and questioned whether the presence of such boxes would increase drug use in the parks.

“For us, it’s a simple metric,” Ginsburg said. “Does it result in fewer needles in our parks on the ground, whether it’s in a playground or the grass or whatever? That’s one bit of analysis that needs, I think, to be a little more thoroughly tested or vetted. The other side of that coin is, ‘Does it result in more unhealthy activity happening in the park?’”

Still, Ginsburg didn’t completely rule out the possibility. “We have had some conversations with Public Health about it,” he said.

When The City received mounting complaints of people defecating and urinating on the sidewalks in some neighborhoods like the Tenderloin and South of Market where there are high concentrations of homeless and poor residents, the solution was to provide toilets under a program called “Pit Stop,” operated by the Department of Public Works with bathroom monitors hired from the nonprofit Hunters Point Family. The program is deemed a success and has grown to 17 locations — some are mobile toilets transported on a trailer while others are fixed facilities — in eight neighborhoods. Other cities are emulating the model.

Another lesser known aspect of the Pit Stop toilets is that they have safe needle disposal boxes in plain view. It seems if people are provided with bathrooms they will choose to use them, and not the sidewalks.

And it seems people will use safe disposal boxes to discard of their unwanted needles.

During a recent eight month period, between August 2016 and March 2017, 6,665 syringes were dropped off at the various Pit Stop locations, according to Department of Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon.

“We’ve seen that safe disposal of needles is effective on our properties,” Gordon said.

As part of the Pit Stop program, a location was opened in January at Victoria Manalo Draves Park in the SoMa neighborhood. A needle disposal box was placed there some time after Pit Stop began operating the bathroom, despite Ginsburg’s general concerns.

The needle disposal boxes provide a convenient and legal way for intravenous drug users to dispose of their unwanted needles. Disposing syringes in trash cans has been illegal in California since 2008, said Guillermo Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Department of Environment. Walgreens provides free biohazard containers for people to discard their needles in and then drop off at their store locations for disposal.

The department supports “increased convenience to safe disposal” but did not take a position Friday on safe needle disposal boxes in public parks, according to Rodriguez. The Department of Environment also supports mandating that needle manufacturers provide “convenient, safe disposal of their products”

“Sharps or needles that are improperly disposed of in the black bin or recycling bin pose a health hazard to sanitation workers both to collection and recycling workers and indirectly to maintenance and mechanic workers when sharps jam bins and equipment,” Rodriguez said.

One nearby resident of the Victoria Manalo Draves Park, Renate Bonsteel, who has lived in the area since 2011, said she had noticed a few syringes in the park from time to time but not recently. She praised the presence of the Pit Stop bathroom monitors — before, she said, “people took advantage” of the bathroom facilities, using drugs or smoking in them — and supported the safe needle disposal box.

“I think that is great so they won’t throw it on the grounds and stuff so people won’t get hurt, get poked, like kids or dogs in their paws,” said Bonsteel, who walked through the park recently on her return home from grocery shopping at the nearby Trader Joe’s.

Thomas Doold was walking his bicycle through the Victoria Manalo Draves Park recently and thought the safe needle disposal boxes made sense for the parks.

“The safer you can make The City, the better. It couldn’t hurt,” Doold said. As far as them being magnets for bad behavior, Doold said that “sounds like people being scared. I’d rather have [needles] in that box than on the ground. People always want to do right.”

He also expressed a tolerant attitude of people who inject drugs and suggested needle disposal boxes show The City cares about them.

“If drugs are somebody’s choice to do that, power to them. You got to be pretty bad off and someone’s going to need some TLC and understanding at that point in their life,” Doold. “I can’t judge them for that and if anything, I want to support them in doing that the safest way that they can.”

The installation of needle disposal boxes in public parks would add to those already installed elsewhere in The City. The Department of Public Health has installed 10 small red needle disposal boxes, which can hold about 400 syringes, in various areas and also two larger kiosks similar to mailboxes that can hold about 1,000. The first needle disposal kiosk was installed in 2009 near Glide Memorial Church, at 330 Ellis St., while boxes were installed more recently in areas such as the Tenderloin at several locations, in the parking lot of Rainbow Grocery at 14th and Division streets in the Mission District, and near the Tom Waddell health clinic in the Civic Center. The boxes are emptied regularly and the needles incinerated.

Eileen Loughran, a health program coordinator and syringe access and disposal community liaison with the Department of Public Health, said she understands the fears of an uptick of drug use around needle drop-off boxes but said they are unfounded.

“People always fear it will draw people to the hang out in the area. That’s not been the case,” Loughran said. “People are not drawn to hang out near boxes like they are water coolers.”

When a needle disposal box was installed near the Castro branch library, similar concerns were expressed, but it has proven effective. “It seems to have decreased the number of syringes around the periphery of the building significantly,” Loughran said.

The Recreation and Park Department could not provide the San Francisco Examiner with data on how many syringes are picked up in public spaces under its jurisdiction. “We don’t collect data on needles/syringes,” said Rec and Park spokesperson Connie Chan in an email.

Loughran said that the department would be willing to pilot safe needle disposal boxes for a three month period in select areas in public parks to gauge the impact.

That would be up to Rec and Park. “We’re definitely open, if they are open,” Loughran said.

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