People are slumped against the walls of Civic Center BART’s hallways — some are asleep, others stare into space. Little bright-orange syringe caps are wedged in the metal escalator stairs as commuters ride up to Market Street. Walking towards City Hall, syringes can be spotted lying in the gutters of the streets, next to the Main Library, where a teacher rounds up a group of schoolkids. With an estimated 22,000 San Francisco residents regularly injecting drugs, it’s become hard to ignore the epidemic. But this week, a new task force launched to address the issue of intravenous drug use on city streets.
“We’re finally having an open and honest conversation about what’s happening on our streets,” begins Supervisor London Breed, at a press conference on the steps of City Hall. On Monday afternoon, the Safe Injection Services Task Force was formally announced, to begin research and advocacy work around the establishment of a safe injection site in San Francisco.
Safe-injection sites are not a new concept — around 100 such facilities exist in progressive Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Denmark, as well as in the Netherlands, France, Australia, Canada, and Spain. The spaces offer users a clean, comfortable safe space, sterile injection equipment, basic health care, a trained medical staff, and access to drug-addiction counseling.
And the data coming out of these clinics is remarkable: In Vancouver, a facility called Insite handles more than 600 injections per day. The space opened in 2003, and has yet to have someone die of an overdose in the facility. With access to a safe space to shoot up, overdose deaths near Insite have dropped a whopping 35 percent.
Numbers aside, the need for a safe space for people to inject intravenous drugs in San Francisco is, for many, a personal issue.
“Some of you know I lost my sister in this city to a drug overdose,” Breed tells the crowd. “I know the impact it can have on a person and a family. I also know how difficult it is to get better, and how much help individuals need to recover, every single step of the way. 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.”
Gary McCoy, a former drug addict and an HIV/AIDS advocate, lived on the city’s streets for many years and struggled to get back on his feet.
“I spent an incredible amount of time in the emergency room, with blood infections and staph infections,” he says. “I split my time sleeping wherever I could — couches, above elevator shafts, shelters, and on the streets. My entire using career was spent in the darkest corners of San Francisco.
“We can do better,” he continues. “We can no longer ignore those struggling on our streets in the darkness of their addiction. We need alternatives to pull people in and connect them to life-saving services.”
It’s easy to blame drug users for their public addictions, but for employees of nonprofits who work with the population every day, there’s a different story to be told. Holly Bradford, program coordinator at the SF Drug Users Union, says that the concerns she hears from people using on the streets are often less about their own safety than that of others.
“We work at a needle exchange over on Turk and Taylor,” she says. “They don’t come to me and say ‘Oh, I want somewhere to get high so I’m comfortable,’ and this and that. They say, ‘I don’t want to inject in front of children. I don’t want families to see me injecting between cars.’ These are the things these people are worried about. … Drug users are people, and they care.”
While the establishment of the Safe Injection Task Force is a big step toward making such sites a reality in S.F., the work is just beginning. Over the next few months, the task force will draft recommendations based on the Department of Public Health’s assessment of sites around the world. Potential costs and benefits to taxpayers will be examined, and interviews will be held with drug users and local residents. But the ball is officially rolling, and nonprofit leaders are celebrating.
“This is the San Francisco I heard about, back in the day,” Bradford says, “where they actually stood up to the plate and did something around public health and public health policy.”