“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”
The evening of June 5 was a sinister stretch of time in East Village. The clouds hung low and foreboding as if over a Tolkien battle, the police department patrolled in force (four cars within 20 minutes) and by 7:30 p.m. a tent city for the homeless had sprung up along the west wall of the 15th Street Smart & Final. But on the curb across the street, where the big threat was said to lurk, all was quiet-disappointingly quiet, given all the sound and fury that the little RV sitting there has stirred. It is home to the city's clean syringe exchange program, Safe Point San Diego.
Robert approaches the RV from a concrete campground one block east. He's wearing a black Star Wars Episode I t-shirt, his cell phone is latched to his belt by a leather case and his shoes are falling apart. His hair is sandy and longish with a balding patch in the front, and his thick handlebar mustache is barely a month ahead of the stubble that grows around it.
As he talks about the neighborhood, a couple gets out of a late-model Ford Ranger and shuffles across the street to the RV like alcoholics to the liquor store (later, the woman will inexplicably hold up her head on the truck's dashboard as the man returns to the RV to say the clean syringes are the wrong size).
“I don't need the needles,” Robert continues, “but I have to get them because of diabetes. My wife and I are diabetic.” They can afford to buy needles, he says, because he has three jobs, but clean needles aren't available anywhere else in the county without a prescription. And, according to health officials, no institution in San Diego will accept dirty needles for disposal.
Safe Point San Diego operates under a local state of emergency that, under California state law, must be renewed by the San Diego City Council every two weeks. The crisis is the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV in the San Diego area.
Every Thursday evening, four health officials from Family Health Centers of San Diego drive the 24-foot mobile health unit out to 15th Street, between G and F Streets. Friday mornings, they park HQ in North Park, in an obscure little nook off 31st Street between University Avenue and North Park Way. At either location, the routine is about the same. They sidle in, pop open their beach chairs and wait for their clients: Heroin addicts and prostitutes mainly, but Family Health Center spokesman Adrian Kwaikowski says many clients are homeless and need clean syringes for treatments related to diabetes, multiple sclerosis and HIV.
These clients come and go without ceremony. They enter the RV with two health center employees, and about 12 minutes later, they come out with a disease-fighting “harm reduction kit” containing clean needles, bleach, a “viral reduction platform” (or cooker), condoms and that manila rubber strip nurses use to engorge the veins on your arm.
Inside the RV, first-time exchangers answer questions about their drug and sex habits and residential status. They're given information about disease and are told about treatment and detox options. “We have placed people into detox directly from the unit,” Kwaikowski said.
Every client receives a get-out-of-jail-free card that identifies them as participants of the program and enables them to carry syringes to and from the exchange without being detained by cops. Clients are not off the hook, however, if they get caught carrying heroin or other drug paraphernalia.
Earlier Thursday afternoon in the city manager's office, the pilot program was on the examination table under the sympathetic eyes of the Clean Syringe Exchange Program Facilitation Committee, while several North Park residents, members of “People for a Better North Park” sat along the walls calling for the program's head on a chopping block. They believe the program encourages drug use and draws users to their area, and they've got the support of Mayor Dick Murphy-but not the majority of the City Council. Moreover, they believe North Park's wave of redevelopment could break on programs like the syringe exchange. North Park Planning Board member Mateo Camarillo said he is concerned the exchange will “deteriorate quality of life.”
Committee members-chosen from the San Diego Association of Governments (the overseeing body), Family Health Center, the San Diego Police Department and Alliance Healthcare Foundation (the funding organization), among others-argue the sites were chosen from “drug corridors” predetermined by police department crime and drug statistics. When the pilot ends next February, the commission's report to the city may very well show that more users come in from other districts (several clients June 5 and 6 arrived in cars). In the meantime, Kwaikowski says, opponents are just getting in the way. But these North Park residents are dubious of the political process and they don't want to wait for SANDAG to issue its report before airing their dissent.
Martin Chevalier, chairman of the North Park Lighting, Landscaping and Maintenance District Community Advisory Board, told the committee that the North Park Planning Board just voted against a site in their community, and he wanted to know why it was still running. “It's a conundrum, an irony,” he said. “[Needle Exchange] works best when it blights the neighborhood best.”
When the North Park Planning Board first voted on the location in January, they approved it. Then a new board, elected in April because of their opposition to the site, put the measure back on the floor. The new vote was close-eight against, six for and one abstention-but still definite: The needle exchange is not welcome in North Park, at least in its current location. But, as committee chairman Dr. James Dunford reminded Chevalier, the planning board is merely advisory. City Council has the final say, and Councilmember Toni Atkins, who represents North Park, supports the exchange.
Atkins herself is part of the debate. Chevalier and former Councilmember John Hartley, Kwaikowski says, are using the needle exchange as a springboard to oust Atkins from office, and in a North Park News report Chevalier admitted that the needle exchange is merely “the apex” of his problem with Atkins.
Self-described “working people” reared in the '60s, some North Park residents believe they are victims of government imposition. They don't disagree with the program itself, and they don't want to hear testimonials from successful programs in Los Angeles or San Francisco. What they want is the opportunity other districts had to reject the location, which some proponents argue they already had with the first planning board vote. The City Heights Planning Board beat the issue before a site could be initiated, and they even voted against having a representative attend the city manager's meetings, though Chairman Michael Sprague still goes.
Sprague wants the county's Health Advisory Board involved, and he believes the issue should not be in the city's hands. But Kwaikowski differs, saying, “The city doesn't run health services, but the Board of Supervisors wouldn't support it,” so the city took a stance on syringe exchange as a land-use issue.
On Friday morning, June 6, the North Park resistance gathers on the corner of North Park Way and 31st Street, across from the North Park Library to observe the syringe exchange in its splendor. The weather is hardly better than the night before, but the morning air gives North Park a sense of malaise. Around the corner, on University Avenue, adult bookstores and pawnshops fill the commercial rental spaces, and a block to the south the residential area begins. Opponents take mental notes and drive around the block looking for suspicious activity. Many of the day's clients appear as you might expect-they are dirty and disheveled, shaking a little as if from withdrawal-but more than a couple of them look like they could be members of the PTA or tellers at a bank.
A clean-cut, 20-something man with a trim goatee, clean clothes and new sneakers walks up to the RV while talking on his cell phone. As he waits for his turn in the RV, he sits with one of the two SANDAG officials, who come in addition to health center staff and pay clients to answer questions for the Criminal Justice Research Division. The information will go out to police departments and will also be included in the final report to City Council.
As the People for a Better North Park watch, 517 dirty needles are exchanged for 323 clean ones, and out of 15 clients, four are first-timers. The numbers barely reach the ground floor of the East Village's statistics: 2,626 dirty needles came in Thursday and 1,796 went out to the 52 visitors.
Robert was one of them, but he was swapping for two: himself and his wife. After his 12 minutes in the RV, he stepped out, chitchatted with Family Health Center officials for awhile and walked off whistling. As he rounded the corner toward his homeless community he turned back and waved, “Thanks. God bless. See ya next week.”