As needle exchange goes mobile, supporters worry about effects
Beginning May 26, staff will drive, walk and park to dispense services
Cindy E. Harnett, Times Colonist
Victoria’s needle exchange staff will begin in late May walking, driving and at times parking on the city’s downtown streets to give out needles to intravenous drug users. Organizers don’t know if this plan will work, but it’s the only one they have in the face of eviction on May 31.
The trial mobile service will start up May 26 delivering needles, as well as condoms and other harm-reduction paraphernalia, on foot during the afternoon and early evening hours and by van at night along a designated route. Staff, working in teams of two, equipped with cellphones, will also respond to calls at 896-2849 for information on where to get clean needles.
By van, staff will travel along Government Street (starting at Herald Street), Gorge Road, Garbally Road and Douglas Street and back to Herald Street. Under the service’s new code of conduct, however, the mobile service will have “no service zones” near schools, daycares, open businesses and faith organizations. It also promises to be vigilant about picking up needles if found around dropoff areas or in downtown hot spots morning and evening.
Thus far, the route will include only one confirmed stop on Princess Avenue near the corner of Government Street, where the van will park on the street and give out needles.
The trial route was devised with input from the Vancouver Island Health Authority and the Victoria police, said Katrina Jensen, executive director of AIDS Vancouver Island, which delivers the service on behalf of VIHA.
“I think it’s going to be sad that Victoria is without a needle exchange for first time in 20 years,” Jensen said. VIHA and University of Victoria researchers will evaluate the service from June until September. “Only time will tell if it works,” she added.
“We’re concerned about when we go mobile, we won’t be able to access the same number of clients and distribute the same number of syringes,” Jensen said. AIDS Vancouver Island and VIHA continue to look for a fixed site.
The needle exchange allows addicts to exchange clean needles for dirty ones to help prevent the sharing or reuse of dirty needles and spreading blood-borne infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. If addicts don’t use the new mobile service, the concern is that these infection rates will increase.
With a clientele that ranges from people living on the street to those who come after working 9 to 5 p.m., Jensen can’t guess which user group if any the mobile unit is more likely to miss.
“We’re really concerned for the clients. We don’t want to see an increase in hepatitis C or HIV, and we will work as hard as we can to prevent that,” Jensen said.
Mike Conroy, VIHA’s chief operating officer, said the health authority is also concerned some clients won’t use the new service but is doing what it can to make as accessible to addicts as possible.
“It’s an unknown a risk, for sure, but we’re certainly trying to get the message out [to clients] as well as to all community agencies to ensure people who need the services know how to avail themselves of them,” he said.
The needle exchange has been handing out packs of needles with extra supplies to some clients to facilitate the changeover to a mobile service.
Jensen said it will also be more difficult, as a mobile exchange, to spot and offer other services to drug users such as addiction counselling, health care and education.
The needle exchange has 1,500 registered clients — seeing about 400 a month — and has operated out of its Cormorant Street location since 2002.
But over the last year, the operation became increasingly controversial because users loitered outside the building, leaving behind dirty syringes, blood and human waste. Some neighbours took legal action forcing the landlords to shut down the service.
A new location was found but didn’t pan out because what seemed an ideal location for VIHA — its new $2-million St. John Ambulance building at 941 Pandora Ave — outraged parents at the nearby private St. Andrew’s Elementary School.
The health authority has now formed a committee with representatives from police, business, community associations, outreach organizations and faith organizations to respond to issues around the mobile exchange and work toward solutions and possibly finding a fixed site.
Conroy concedes it won’t be easy to start up a fully mobile service but that many measures have been put in place, as well as additional funding, to ensure the service “has a really good chance at success” offering the maximum impact for users and the minimum impact on the community.
“I think we’ll experience challenges in a number of sites but the need goes on,” he said.
see also: Man’s body was dumped in driveway, police say for a tragic example of what increased harm reduction might have prevented.