Jennifer Saltman, The Province
A program that makes downtown Surrey streets and parks safer and cleaner by collecting used needles and trash is scheduled to shut down in a week.
“Unfortunately, we are at the stage where we are having to wind down the program,” said Kier Macdonald, Lookout Emergency Aid Society’s deputy executive director.
In July, the society issued a call for help, saying its peer-led Rig Dig program was in danger of ending, primarily due to the organization’s provincial gaming grant not being renewed this year. The society’s annual peer programming funding from Fraser Health was also reduced by $15,000.
Last year, Lookout had a budget of $50,588 to operate Rig Dig — $4,215 per month. After the cuts, the only remaining funding for this year was $8,400 from Fraser Health, which is a combined fund for honorariums, health fairs and the Rig Dig program.
Because of the reductions in funding, Lookout cut the program’s operations by half. Even with reduced service, the society spent $8,190 in just over three months. An additional emergency grant of $4,000 from the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society that came through in April made it so that the program could continue until Sept. 9.
However, following the call for help no one came forward to help fund the program.
“You always hope, right, but unfortunately as much as the discussions have continued there has been no indication that we’re likely to get any additional funding,” Macdonald said.
From Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 of this year, the program’s employees collected 21,099 discarded needles and 2,200 bins of garbage. In all of 2015, the program cleaned up 24,175 needles, along with almost 2,000 bins of trash.
“It is incredible that we’ve literally halved the service and doubled the collection,” said Macdonald. “That’s a concern for us.”
Macdonald expects businesses in the area — which frequently call on Rig Dig to deal with needles — and residents will notice a marked increase in the amount of needles and trash in the area, particularly as drug use has increased and become more visible in the city.
“I don’t know who is going to collect these discarded needles if we don’t,” Macdonald said. “We do expect a bit of an outcry on this.”
A safety audit conducted by an SFU student intern on behalf of the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association found that downtown business owners say they are finding more used needles discarded on their property and the problem is spreading.
The student, Alex Dibnah, put forward five recommendations to deal with the issue, one of which was to expand and increase funding for the Rig Dig program.
“I think it’s consistent with the dialogue we’ve had with the BIA — they value this service and they wanted expansion or continuation,” Macdonald said. “Support for this program has been one of the unwavering things.”
Macdonald said there is a chance the program can be resurrected next year if funding comes through in the next few months. In the meantime, Lookout will continue to educate drug users in downtown Surrey about safe needle disposal and try to get more sharps containers out on the streets.
“There’s significant impacts of this decision,” said Macdonald. “We always hold out hope that another funder will come to the table. We’re not going to stop trying.”
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