Safe Injection Site Inches Closer to Reality

The controversial safe space for IV drug users won unanimous approval from a Board of Supervisors committee Wednesday.

A collection of supplies used for safe injection are displayed on a table at the AIDS Foundation’s Harm Reduction Center on 6th Street. (Jessica Christian)

A task force created by Sup. London Breed to assess the perks — and obstacles — of a safe injection site in San Francisco presented their findings at City Hall Wednesday to overwhelming support.

The Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee — made up of Sup. Sandra Fewer, Sup. Jeff Sheehy and Sup. Hillary Ronen — voiced avid interest in the process moving forward, pending legal hoops that need clearing. 

Safe injection services would offer drug users a controlled environment, clean needles, a place to rest, overdose prevention tactics, and a slew of other resources — such as drug addiction counseling and mental and medical healthcare. In San Francisco, where there are more than 22,500 people who regularly use IV drugs, a safe space to shoot up could be a literal lifesaver. 

Breed got the ball rolling on a task force to research the controversial service back in May, when she announced her vision for a safer San Francisco with a personal story: Her sister died of a drug overdose. “For years, San Francisco has grappled with how to help people like my sister, but they’re left to wither away on our streets without help, without solutions, and without hope,” she said. 

In the five months since, the task force — which is made up of 15 people from a wide variety of organizations and backgrounds — has held three meetings, two focus groups, and conducted three surveys, polling people ranging from local merchants to homeless drug users.

The results overwhelmingly pointed to the need for such a center — and, even more than one. “To open one site and consider that someone is going to walk a half mile or a mile to their service while they’re being impacted by their craving is not going to happen,” Barbara Garcia, Director of the Department of Public Health, says in her presentation of the task force’s report. “Multiple sites are going to be very important to reach the population where they are.”

During the more than three-hour hearing held by the Public Safety and Neighborhood Committee, more than a dozen people took the stand to voice their support, on the record. 

“Sometimes I feel like everyone’s speaking for drug users, and drug users don’t speak for themselves,” says Holly Bradford, who runs the San Francisco Drug Users Union in the Tenderloin. Prior to the hearing, she collected statements from many of the individuals who come through the union and read them to the committee. “This is Frank,” she says, holding up an eight- by- 10-inch photo. “He says, ‘I use drugs. I’ve also reversed more than 20 overdoses. If we had an SIS you could save more lives than I have.’ ”

Joe Wilson, executive director of Hospitality House, believes that safe injection sites are more than just a city service. “The journey we have traveled has really been a journey to reclaim our own humanity,” he says. “Really this is less about the evidence than the proof that we are still human, that lives still matter in our city.”

One possible site for a safe injection space has been identified: Our sister publication the Examiner reports that the AIDS Foundation’s Harm Reduction Center on Sixth Street is a contender. Terry Morris, the manager of Syringe Access Services which operates out of that site, told the committee that her staff had conducted 100 interviews with local drug users.

“People were using in alleys, stairwells, tents, BART trains, BART stations, Muni buses, bathrooms of businesses, nonprofit agencies, garages, parking lots, streets, alleys, and in the presence of feces and urine, with no one to respond,” Morris says. “But I’ve seen people on the streets take care of people in ways we’ve never had to. Drug users care about San Francisco, and I want our city to be a place that takes care of all of its citizens.”

Despite the overwhelming support, Garcia highlights that any center will take a while to establish. One funding is secured, it would take eight to 12 months to train staff and set up. “I don’t want to give the impression that we can do this overnight,” she says. “That would be impossible to do.”

But if it does move forward, it will be the first safe injection service site in the entire country — once again, proving that this small city isn’t afraid to take the lead.

“San Francisco is known for this. We are a special place where humanity and idealism intersect,” Fewer says. “People say we’re crazy, then they follow, because they know we’re right.”

 

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