Lawmakers in Santa Monica, California are trying to stop sterile syringe distribution in public parks, restricting it largely to brick-and-mortar locations instead. Harm reduction experts say this would particularly hurt unhoused people who use drugs, who may lack transportation to get to other locations or information about where to find these services.
On September 8, Santa Monica City Council members Lana Negrete and Phil Brock submitted a letter describing their plan, as reported by the Santa Monica Daily Press. It asks the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to stop harm reduction providers from distributing sterile syringes in Santa Monica’s public parks and open spaces, citing the example of the Venice Family Clinic, which operates locally.
“We seek your assistance in immediately moving this program to a service rich environment (preferably indoors) where individuals in need of substance abuse, mental health, and other services can coordinate and work directly with service providers,” the letter reads. The council is slated to meet September 13 to discuss the item.
“Taking away mobile services will only create negative health consequences like transmission of HIV and hepatitis C.”
“I think this is a step in the wrong direction,” David Goodman, assistant professor for the division of infectious diseases at UCLA, told Filter. “We know from years of experience and evidence that people who are using drugs need more services. They don’t need less services. Taking away mobile services from them will only create negative health consequences like transmission of HIV and hepatitis C.”
Goodman doesn’t work in Santa Monica but helps operate a mobile harm reduction van that operates throughout the county, including in downtown LA and Long Beach. It gives out free naloxone to treat overdoses, offers testing for HIV and hepatitis C, and distributes sterile syringes.
The Venice Family Clinic itself was founded in 1970 and is a federally recognized provider for unhoused people. In 2014, it merged with nonprofit group Common Ground (formerly the Santa Monica AIDS Project) to provide comprehensive HIV/AIDS and health care services to low income and unhoused people living in Los Angeles Westside.
Its services include mental health, case management, peer-to-peer counseling, HIV testing and of course syringe provision and disposal. It also gives out free food and groceries. Bringing these services directly to people is critical for highly vulnerable individuals.
“People who are experiencing homelessness or injecting drugs face many more barriers in getting to these services in brick-and-mortar facilities,” Goodman said. “They struggle with transportation, meeting appointment schedules, they struggle with phones or internet. They also struggle with systematic racism or stigmatization of people who inject drugs.”
In Goodman’s case, his mobile program has tried different ways to find people who need its services, with reference to data on overdoses, HIV transmission and homelessness. His van parks on street corners, visits public parks, and more recently has been visiting some of the transitional houses and “tiny homes” being created by the California government to address its homelessness crisis.
Goodman said that LA County has generally been very supportive of harm reduction vans, like his and those run by Venice Family Clinic. Neither Venice Family Clinic nor LA County officials responded to Filter’s request for comment by publication time.
“LA has a rich history with harm reduction … We reached out to [the city AIDS Coordinator’s Office, led by Ricky Rosales] early on and made them aware of our different efforts, and got their full support,” Goodman said. “They distribute a list of these locations out to police officers to put their hands back and not engage with people who are using our services.”
Still, it’s not unusual for politicians to push back, just as some Santa Monica lawmakers are now. Goodman recalled working in the past with some more conservative local governments that tried to restrict syringe services to city-operated disposal sites. “But those sites were actually not places where people who inject drugs congregate, so they weren’t really fruitful.”
Usually, these conflicts arise from misconceptions like that syringe sevice programs increase drug use, crime or syringe litter in public spaces. As decades of research show, the opposite is true. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), syringe service programs “do not increase illegal drug use or crime, and play an important role in reducing the transmission of viral [infections]” and “[facilitate] the safe disposal of used needles and syringes.”
If these proposals are passed, unhoused people will face increased hostility as well as worse health outcomes.
Santa Monica City Council will also consider a request from its police to ban unhoused people from sleeping or sitting in doorways of business buildings citywide. There is currently a 20-year-old ban in place in the downtown and Main Street district, which would be expanded. In a report, the police department claims it has received numerous complaints from businesses. “[The proposal] would serve to protect access to property when owners and tenants are not present to protect it themselves,” said the report. “It would also protect public health by reducing sanitation risks and preserving aesthetics.”
It’s difficult to not draw a connection between taking away syringe services for unhoused people and this separate proposal to further isolate those same people. If these proposals are passed, unhoused people will face increased hostility as well as worse health outcomes.
Photograph via US Department of Veterans Affairs