Sharing Needles as Street Kids in LA, During the Rise of the HIV Epidemic

July 10, 2023

In 1988 Los Angeles, the kids who did sex work had communal syringes stashed in hiding places around the city. We’d carefully maintain them as long we could, and whenever one disappeared or fell apart we’d replace it before we even thought about a motel room or food or shoes. The spot I went to the most, behind a water pipe in the open garage of an apartment building in Hollywood, had a syringe there continuously for at least a year; all of us took turns sharpening or replacing it when it was time.

I was 13 or 14 when I got to Los Angeles; I think it was spring. Echo was the first person to show me the syringes. Everyone was smoking crack cocaine, but if you were a street kid, and you hustled, then you were shooting meth. It kept us awake when we had nowhere safe to sleep, and it made surviving the way we did easier to deal with. Getting drugs was never a problem. The problem was getting them in a vein.

One night Echo and I found two syringes in a dumpster that were too far gone to salvage, but both of them still had needles. We got a room. I watched as she started digging around in her purse and pulled out a pen, then a tube of mascara, then a little Visine-like bottle, then some superglue. She took off one of her rubber flip flops and started to clean it, and explained that when you had a needle but not a syringe, you could make one.

There were five of us who stuck together that year. Caspar was 12 or 13, a little blonde girl from Kansas. Tweaky Dave and Ziggy were both around 17; Ziggy didn’t do sex work, but he was good at copping and he was one of us because he shot up with us. Echo was 16. She was tough; never cried.

Whenever we could get a room, we’d all put our shot in the same cooker and draw up one after another so our blood mixed together. It was more than just sharing the needle because we only had one to go around; we were a family. One day Tweaky Dave came back from the youth center and told us he had HIV. None of us knew what to do—we obviously still had to shoot up, and we obviously were still family. We all decided that from then on he’d go last, and we could take the syringe apart and clean it before it was time to use it again.

In 1992, I was on the streets in Olympia and getting my syringes from a guy who went by Long Hair Dave.

At the height of the HIV epidemic, condoms were always available to anyone who wanted them. Even the church groups handed them out. I never used them in any capacity. It didn’t matter that I was too ashamed to be seen getting them, because they got in the way of making money.

Syringes were different. All of us would have used new ones if we’d had a way to get them. Pharmacists couldn’t legally sell them to you unless you had a prescription. Every once in a while one would meet you out back, but charge $20 for a 10-pack. Sometimes they’d let you work out a deal, but that was even less common. On the street, syringes were going for $7 apiece. It would be another six years before, in 1994, the City of Los Angeles authorized syringe distribution in response to the local HIV crisis.

Everyone—from outreach workers to health department staff to the posters on the wall at the youth center—told us to clean our syringes with bleach, but none of them ever gave us any. Sometimes we had bleach, but for the most part we just flushed with water. No one was about to do anything that shortened a syringe’s lifespan when we had no reliable source of new ones.

While Echo was teaching me how to make syringes out of flip flops, the first publicly funded needle exchange was opening in Tacoma, Washington, not far from where I grew up. I didn’t find out until 1992, when I went back.

I was 18 by then, living on the streets in Olympia. I’d left sex work behind. I was selling meth, and giving out syringes for free, because I got them for free.

Years later, I learned the guy who brought them was David Fawver, who founded the Emma Goldman Youth & Homeless Outreach Project in 1998. Like a lot of people on the streets at that time, I just knew him as Long Hair Dave. He came around a few nights a week with new rigs we could trade him for our old ones. He also had bleach, cookers, little blue vials of sterile water, cottons, sometimes ties and alcohol swabs. He talked to us about how HIV was transmitted and what we could do to protect each other.

The health department had a van they’d park at Columbia St. for mobile HIV testing, and one day they persuaded me to do it. They gave me a tracking number and a phone number to call anonymously for results, but I was never going to follow up. 

There were no encampments back then, and this was still before cell phones. I never slept in the same place twice because I never slept at all. No one at the health department could find me, and after a few weeks they called Long Hair Dave for help. I’ve always felt that they did right by me in disclosing my results; I was dying, and they knew he could find me.

He did, at the Bread and Roses shelter downtown. At first he tried to get me to go with him to the health department, but when I wouldn’t he took me into the cramped office where he kept some bleach kits, and he sat me down and explained. We called it AIDS in those days.

I never went anywhere without clean rigs after that. Anyone who shot with me got one.

He did a good job. He looked me in the eye when he told me, and he set me up with the services that existed at the time. When I said to give me a minute to let it sink in, he did. 

It didn’t actually take long to process. It made sense. I’d been injecting drugs since I was 12, and I’d been raped continuously since I was 11. I don’t really know when I started doing sex work, because it was hard to tell what was what at that age.

When I was 10, MTV did a special about what was then called HTLV-III, “the AIDS virus,” and that night was the first time I woke up sweating because I’d dreamed I was dying of AIDS. By the time I was 18, I’d learned how to not think about all the people I’d hurt, and all the people who’d hurt me, but this was different.

I was going to die a slow, miserable death, exactly like I did in my nightmares. My lungs would collapse and my skin would fall off and there was nothing I could do to stop it, and I didn’t want to be the reason anyone else died that way, too.

I left Long Hair Dave sitting next to the bleach kits. The first person I had to find was my girlfriend, because we shot up together and we didn’t use condoms. I wasn’t doing sex work anymore, but she was. I told her what he’d told me, and then I walked with her down to the health department so she could get tested. Over the next few weeks, I tried to find everyone I used with, and had the same conversation with them, too.

I never went anywhere without clean rigs after that. Anyone who shot with me got one. I told everyone my status, and if I was down to my last syringe then the other person always went before I did. If they had any used ones, I’d collect them and bring them back to Long Hair Dave, maybe 30 or 50 at a time, and he’d give me 30 or 50 new ones to bring back. He was limited to 1:1, but he did what he could.

Injection drug users and sex workers were acceptable losses.

The Tacoma needle exchange emerged at a moment when the harm reduction movement was coalescing around syringe access in response to the HIV epidemic. The exact number of syringe service programs operating in the US today is subjective, because the legality of possessing and distributing syringes varies so much by state. The people doing that work brought HIV transmission down each year until 2015.

Tweaky Dave died of complications from AIDS by the end of 1988. Caspar was murdered in 1989. Ziggy died of injuries from an assault not long after that. Echo overdosed on heroin in 1990.

Injection drug users and sex workers were acceptable losses. Many were queer, trans, Black, Brown. The fact that I’m none of these is a large part of why I survived being associated with HIV after I went into the prison system in 1995. And there wasn’t anything to hide—the people in there were the same people I’d outreached with syringes before they were incarcerated. Everyone knew. 

In addition to just syringes, condoms and bleach are prohibited in prison, too. But by the time I went in I knew how HIV was transmitted and how to talk to people I was using with about why I should go last. I’d learned how to clean syringes when we had them, and how to make new ones when we didn’t.

 


 

Image of “Long Hair” David Fawver (right) in 1993 in the office where he delivered Jonathan’s results, via Long Hair David

Jonathan Kirkpatrick

Jonathan covers harm reduction and re-entry. He's incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, where he's a Teacher’s Assistant for re-entry workshops and trains peer educators in HIV and hepatitis C harm reduction. His writing has been published by the AppealTruthoutJewish Currents and the Seattle Journal of Social Justice. His Washington State Department of Corrections ID is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 29-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is “Jonathon.”

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