Getting Syringes Off the Street

“There’s a story behind every syringe that’s left on the ground in San Francisco,” said Terry Morris, program manager for Syringe Access Services (SAS) at San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

“I think, especially in San Francisco, because we have such a large community of people who don’t have homes, you can’t disconnect the issue of homelessness and syringe disposal. Often homeless people don’t have a choice about how long they can stay at a certain location and what happens to their property. People might not have alternatives [to leaving syringes behind]. Some people have mental health concerns or use substances in a chaotic way which can be a barrier to safely disposing equipment. If people had better options about where they could go and safely inject, we would see less injection equipment left on the street,” explained Morris. 

Public health programs such as SAS distribute clean syringes and other safer injection equipment to combat the spread of infectious diseases including HIV and hepatitis C. (Read why unlimited syringe distribution programs are the most effective way to curb disease transmission.)  But injection litter is a concern for San Francisco residents, when syringes left on the street become a nuisance or pose safety concerns.

To address this issue, syringe distribution programs have established practices and policies in place to reduce injection litter. SAS staff sweep the streets four times a week to pick up syringes, maintain 24-hour community disposal containers around the community and talk to all of their clients about safely disposing of injection equipment.

SAS, in conjunction with the Syringe Access Collaborative, also recently organized a community cleanup event to bring the community together and enact positive change. Thirty-eight volunteers—including foundation staff, agency volunteers, program participants, and Department of Public health leadership—came together to sweep the SOMA and Tenderloin neighborhoods.

First, volunteers completed training on how to safely dispose of injection litter. Then, groups of volunteers, armed with gloves, tongs, sharps containers, counters and maps carefully followed pre-planned routes through alleys and side streets to look for and pick up discarded injection equipment.

Several volunteer groups reported back to Morris that they received thanks from people in the neighborhood who were curious about what they were doing and what organization they were part of. Different groups of city police officers also stopped the volunteers to thank them for their efforts.

Jody Schaffer, director of volunteer services at the foundation, wore a full-body sharps container costume when her group went out to pick up syringes. “My group was a little more visible than other groups, because I was in the middle of the group, dancing around and waving at people in my costume. I was uncertain about the reception we would receive because of some concerns that have been expressed in the community about needles on the street. I was happily surprised that almost everyone we met expressed thanks and gratitude to us.” 

“When you have that many people out and about—cheerfully going about the neighborhood to pick up syringes—it kind of demystifies and destigmatizes syringes that get left on the ground,” said Kristen Marshall, SAS logistics coordinator. “I think it helps break down barriers that people have to talking about this issue. Events like this show that we can talk about this issue without fear-mongering, that we can come together and contribute to something that everybody wants—a cleaner, safer community.”

“Everyone was excited, energetic and happy to be out there early on a Sunday morning. You might not think that picking up dirty syringes off the street would be fun, but we made it a celebration. We high-fived each other every time we found one and the ‘thank yous’ we heard so often kept us engaged and inspired to stay out longer and find more needles. I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few hours connecting with such a diverse group of volunteers and community members, and I highly recommend it as a volunteer opportunity,” said Schaffer.

After the cleanup, volunteers returned to the foundation main office to eat breakfast together, swap cleanup stories, play bingo and get to know each other. “This even brought people from different communities together. It was about building relationships, building understanding and having fun together,” said Morris.

“What we do day to day, it can feel kind of heavy. There is sorrow, and there is pain. It was so nice to be able to also celebrate something good—by coming together and doing great work for our community,” said Marshall.

Want to make a difference in your community? Find out how you can volunteer with Syringe Access Services and other programs at San Francisco AIDS Foundation, or attend a drop-in volunteer event with Syringe Access Services through Hands On Bay Area. 

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