Every day, hundreds of discarded needles are picked up from Whalley streets, many of them just steps from City Hall. Now, a downtown business group is offering up fresh solutions.
On one side of the street, children glide up and down on their skateboards at Chuck Bailey skate park. Their laughter fills the air.
On the other side of 107A Avenue, not far away, a homeless man named Robert sits on the ground behind a tree, shrieking while feverishly clapping his hands. His belongings, including a handful of needles, are strewn about on a damp, dirty piece of carpet.
Nearby, more than a dozen used syringes have been left on the seat of an orange chair in the back of the field.
Another used needle sticks out of a tree just steps away, stabbed into its trunk.
On Monday morning, the “Rig Dig” team set out on its regular daily patrol, hunting for as many discarded syringes as they could find. Armed with sharps containers, buckets and trash pickers, the team found and disposed of about 250 needles in just two hours. That’s the norm.
The field near the skatepark is a “hot spot” said Johnathon Williams (pictured), a summer student employee at Lookout Emergency Aid Society, which runs the “Rig Dig” needle recovery program.
There are several more hot spots, he said during a walk around with the team. Williams has learned as much during his daily patrols.
He switches the route up from day to day to ensure they cover the most ground in the community.
“There are certain locations where there will be at least 20 to 30 needles every day,” said Williams. “But we also go out to where there will be lots of people, so when the higher volumes of traffic do come out there’s no needles present.”
A field underneath the SkyTrain line across 104th Avenue from Surrey City Hall is usually rife with needles, he said.
And right he was.
The team found more than 30 there Monday morning, many with blood still in the syringe.
“They’re everywhere. It’s scary. It would be like walking on eggshells if we weren’t here,” said Donna Wheeler (pictured), as she filled her sharps container with about 10 needles.
Wheeler is a former addict who now volunteers for Lookout.
“I had someone come up to me once and ask me for (a needle I was holding) because they wanted the dope back, but there was blood in it. That’s how much they want the drugs, how desperate they are. Pretty sad.”
While Lookout is in charge of the program that picks up dumped needles, it also runs Positive Point Needle Exchange on 135A Street and empties community needle drop boxes.
The organization reports that in Surrey last year it distributed 496,794 needles and collected 592,073 – meaning the group collected close to 100,000 more than they handed out.
Despite those efforts, the needle problem seems to be increasing.
A Downtown Surrey BIA (DSBIA) report, titled Addressing Discarded Needles in Downtown Surrey, notes over the past two years they have become an “ever-growing concern” in the area.
“Whereas used needles were once largely confined to 135A Street (‘the Strip’), they are increasingly spreading to new, previously unaffected areas,” states the report.
During a DSBIA Community Clean-up in the Whalley area on June 21, dozens of needles were found in one dump site alone (pictured).
It’s not uncommon to come across used needles in this amount near public parkways, the report notes.
Given the escalating problem, the BIA has come up with recommendations on how to tackle the issue.
First, it recommends changing needle distribution policies.
Currently, Fraser Health policy for the 135A needle exchange run by Lookout follows a “distribution” model meaning there’s no limit to the amount of needles a user can receive per visit.
This follows recommendations from CATIE (a Canadian resource centre for HIV and hepatitis C, and the World Health Organization), whose guidelines advocate harm reduction above all else.
The BIA wants that changed to model other jurisdictions that have implemented more restrictive policies.
The report notes in Baltimore, first-time visitors at needle exchanges receive two starter needles but subsequent visits follow a strict one-for-one policy.
The BIA is also advocating for distribution of “vanishing needles” which feature an automatic sheathing function.
When withdrawn, the needle automatically snaps back into a protective housing, significantly limiting the risk of injury to others.
The business group would also like to more education for drug users, and more disposal boxes around needle hot spots.
Finally, the DSBIA calls for expansion of the “Rig Dig” program and in its report states that calls to the service often go unanswered.
Fraser Health doesn’t seem to be on the same page, at least when it comes to the distribution policies.
“Best practice in Canada is to provide individuals with the number of clean needles that they need without requiring clients to return used needles,” Fraser Health spokeswoman Tasleem Juma told the Now.
“This is because it limits lending between individuals, thereby preventing the spread of blood-borne illnesses like Hep C and HIV. It also increases opportunities to engage with users and connect them with services.”
Juma said the health authority is aware of the BIA’s concerns and is working with the city to find solutions for inappropriately discarded syringes.
“Funding for services provided by Lookout, including their Rig Dig program, has increased by $186,603 in the past year for a total of $660,293,” Juma noted.
DSBIA CEO Elizabeth Model said the issue of discarded needles isn’t specific to Surrey, and is seen in a variety of other municipalities, such as Vancouver.
“This is a regional problem,” Model told the Now.
“We have to look at this regionally and be collaborative. We need to work together on cleaning up our region with this huge issue. This is not a Fraser Health problem, this is a Vancouver Coastal Health problem too.”
But the increase seen in Surrey has been massive, she acknowledged.
“There’s just a huge amount of them. Even in the Whalley Ball Park, the Little League, when they go in, they have to pick up the needles in the park before they can actually use the park. So it’s businesses, the citizens, the children, it’s everybody,” said Model.
“The impact of the problem is that when businesses go to open and needles are around the area, they have to have the means of being able to pick them up…. Not only is it a risk for them, but visually it’s very unappealing for an area trying to beautify,” she remarked.
“It’s a sad thing when businesses have to clean up their property of garbage and needles and other things before they open for business.”
Mike Nielsen (pictured) of Sprite Multimedia Systems has to do just that.
His mornings begin by walking around his business parking lot and looking for drug paraphernalia.
Nielsen said the worst days are generally after ‘Welfare Wednesday.’
“A couple of months ago in a Friday morning, after ‘Welfare Wednesday,’ I collected 10 in one morning.”
He’s said he’s never seen that many in a single night before.
“We’ve been here 33 years. It was never like this. It was rare,” said Nielsen. “Sure I found the odd needle but one or two a month at most. Now, every day there’s usually one, on average.
“I have a little box in there, I have pliers, so I pick it up, seal it all up. I can phone Lookout and someone will come up but I’d rather just get it done and move on.”
Nielsen hopes the needle distribution policies can be changed so as to only allow for a one-for-one exchange.
“I don’t want someone to die from getting HIV or AIDS. It’s so hard to know that balancing act of what to do. I’m compassionate, I don’t want anyone to die. And boy, with this fentanyl, every day, I’m not exaggerating, two or three people overdose in this area.
“We’re all rallying together,” he said of the community. “We have to work as a team.”
Despite the area’s struggles, Nielsen remains positive.
“The future looks bright, it really does,” he remarked. “We’re making traction. Yes, the homeless situation is worse this year and that saddens me a lot. But the Downtown Surrey BIA is lobbying federally and provincially. The city is doing almost everything it can. We need help to get people back into entry-level and low-barrier housing. We just have to.”
Coincidentally, the Newton BIA is installing 10 safe needle boxes in “high volume” areas behind businesses this week after identifying discarded needles as a problem.