As you may know, San Francisco also performs a ‘homeless census’ every two years, called the "point in time count" to tally unhoused residents, and now we find via ABC 7 that the Department of Public Works has been doing a monthly count, also, of discarded hypodermic needles. It probably won't surprise you that needles are becoming more common, but the degree of increase is pretty staggering. The most recent ‘needle census’ data shows that DPW employees collected 10,000 needles from San Francisco streets in March of 2017, compared to just 3,000 one year earlier, in March 2016.
Even that may be underestimating the spike in needles thrown onto our streets and sidewalks. An AP report insists the number of needles has more than quadrupled (confusingly, that report was posted to ABC 7’s website the same day), saying that “more than 13,000 syringes” were collected in March 2017.
This has even prompted a “People Behaving Badly” segment from KRON 4’s Stanley Roberts, seen above. It’s a fairly mailed-in segment by Stanley standards, with no footage busting any people shooting up or throwing syringes around. But it drives home the point that needles aren’t just a Skid Row phenomenon, they’re also commonly found in San Francisco parks, libraries, and shopping or theater districts.
The exponential increase in needles which can transmit Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, or HIV/AIDS certainly justifies hysteria and People Behaving Badly segments. But the city is, in fact, putting a dent in the problem. KTVU points out that about 11,000 needles per month are collected at needle disposal boxes around the city. In other words, close to half of the discarded needles are ending up in those boxes and not landing on the streets. The problem would presumably be way worse without the needle boxes.
KTVU also got a heroin user to speak on the record, using his name, about how he handles his needles after shooting up. “I break the point off right away and stick it in the dirt,” Larry Heistand told KTVU. “Stomp it down and put it in a can. Flush it down the toilet."
Supervisor London Breed has been calling for indoor safe injection sites for hypodermic drug users, and these new needle numbers have her advocating for these again. "A safe injection site could, you know, enhance the protection of public safety," Breed told ABC 7. "Do we know if it will solve the problem or not? No. But I don't think we should be unwilling to try."
We have long considered syringes and poop on the streets to be uniquely San Francisco problems, but this spike in discarded needles appears to be a symptom of the larger, nationwide opioid and related heroin epidemics. A Vox report last month called out a Blue Cross Blue Shield study that found a nearly 500 percent increase in opioid abuse diagnoses since 2010, compared to just a 65 percent increase in the use of more effective, non-opioid medications like methadone.
“The rate of opioid use disorder diagnoses has grown by nearly eight times the rate of the most effective treatment,” writes Vox’s German Lopez. "That's a lot of people not getting the standard of care for what they’re diagnosed with.”
Can a connection be drawn between the overprescription of Oxycontin and the number of needles discarded on the streets? This is by no means a proven correlation, but it’s not unreasonable to wonder either. San Francisco has had a needle issue for decades. Maybe DPW is just better at noticing and counting them now, or maybe there are contributing societal factors fueling a genuine exponential needle increase.
DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon told ABC 7 that when you see needles, “The thing that the public needs to do is contact 311. I cannot emphasize that enough."
For kicks, I did just that. The website sf311.org, which also exists as a mobile app, does allow you to submit complaints. There is not a specific category for reporting syringes, but I’m going to assume it falls under Street and Sidewalk Cleaning. The site prompts you to create an account (which is a bottleneck), though you can submit items anonymously without doing so. According to sf311, incidents of “Medical Waste” get responses within “12 to 24 hour(s).” The system may not be ideal, and that response time may not even be accurate. But it’s at least an indication that San Francisco recognizes the problem, and is actively looking for a fix.