When GK Callahan began working to transform a blighted plot of land into the Please Touch Community Garden in 2010, he and his volunteers were astounded at the volume of hypodermic needles piled up in the empty lot.
“When I started the garden project, it had been desolate for years,” Callahan said of its Grove Street location. “I collected about 2,000 needles. That’s when it became apparent to me there was a need.”
Although San Francisco began needle-exchange programs in 1993, that didn’t begin to take all the needles off The City’s streets.
Now, a bright-red box, roughly 1 foot long and 1 foot high, hangs on the side of the Tom Waddell Health Center building, one block from City Hall and just outside the garden’s gates. The box is part of a new pilot program that will offer a place for needle users to drop empty syringes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
That location and one by Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin were chosen carefully, according to Eileen Loughran, the Department of Public Health’s health program coordinator in HIV prevention.
“No one wants syringes in their gardens or on the streets,” Loughran said. “A couple of years ago, a study was done that interviewed drug users. They said they wanted a place to put syringes. They didn’t want to just dump them on the street.”
These boxes, Loughran hopes, will help. Disposing of needles safely helps prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, among other diseases.
The pilot program was launched roughly one month ago, but it could take at least six months before any talks of expansion begin. Loughran said the boxes will be monitored to see if they are being used.
“Right now they’re emptied twice a week,” Loughran said, “to assess how many syringes are there.” But Loughran said the needles are not counted due to the danger of doing so.
According to Katie Bouche of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which maintains the two boxes, 2.7 million needles are handed out throughout the year in The City. While all syringe programs offer a way to disposed of used needles, not all needles come back.
“Overnight, there is no place for folks to dispose of them,” said Bouche, manager of the AIDS Foundation’s syringe-access services. “We have needle exchanges throughout the week and we hand out sharp containers so the needles can be carried back to us. But this is a safe way too.”
The founder of Please Touch Community Garden was one of those who pushed for more access for needle drops. And Callahan reports that the red box at the Tom Waddell Health Center has made a difference.
“There are a lot of people who wanted to see this happen for a long time,” he said. “I think if they keep putting these containers where there are high volumes (of users), it’s going to make a definite difference.”