Harm reduction

Getting syringes off San Francisco streets

In April 2018, San Francisco AIDS Foundation received funding from the city to expand syringe disposal efforts. With the support of a grant from the Department of Public Health, our syringe access and disposal team has been able to design a new program and hire staff who focus on looking for and properly disposing of syringes and other drug use paraphernalia discarded on city streets and in public areas.

“The City’s increased investment will allow us to build upon current disposal efforts which result in the collection and disposal of more than 275,000 used needles per month,” said Joe Hollendoner, CEO of San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

“These new positions will increase our capacity to remove used syringes from circulation, ensure their safe disposal to prevent syringe sharing and re-use, and clean up syringe litter on our city streets,” said Terry Morris, director of syringe access and disposal services and the 6th Street Harm Reduction Center at San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

“Most importantly, this programming will allow us to dispatch staff to quickly respond to neighbor and merchant requests for syringe cleanup seven days a week for a total of 72 hours per week.”

The new positions will supplement existing safe syringe disposal and street clean-up efforts. Currently, San Francisco AIDS Foundation staff and volunteers search the City’s streets, alleys, parks, plazas and BART stations for improperly discarded syringes, offer safe disposal services at all syringe access sites, provide clients and community members with safe disposal equipment, and provide safe disposal education to program participants. In May 2018, staff and volunteers in existing programs picked up 8,000 improperly discarded syringes, said Morris.

“For the last five years we have made an extra effort to improve the pickup of needle litter,” said Barbara Garcia, director of health at San Francisco Department of Public Health. “This is an environmental health issue that affects everyone in the city, and it is a problem for cities all over the world. By increasing our response capabilities we expect to see a significant reduction in needles on the streets.”

Syringe access programs distribute clean syringes and other safe injection equipment to combat the spread of infectious diseases including HIV and hepatitis C. User-defined syringe distribution programs are the most effective way to curb disease transmission, and syringe access sites are the collecting the largest share of used syringes compared to all the other means of collection. While no HIV infections have resulted from needle sticks from improperly discarded syringes, needle litter is a concern when syringes left on the street become a nuisance or pose safety concerns.

Although people who inject drugs are most often proponents of safe disposal, difficult life circumstances and structural barriers can stand in the way of safe disposal. People without stable housing may not have a choice about how long they can stay at a certain location and what happens to their property, explained Morris.

“You can’t disconnect the issue of homelessness and syringe disposal,” Morris said. “If people had better options about where they could go and safely inject, we would see less injection equipment left on the street.”

Want to make a difference in your community? Find out how you can volunteer with Syringe Access Services and other programs at San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

See a needle on the street? Don’t touch it or try to pick it up without proper training and equipment. Report it to our Pick Up Crew using our online tool, or text a photo and location to 415-810-1337. You may also call 311 to report the location. A team will be dispatched to the location to pick up and dispose of the syringe safely.

About the author

San Francisco AIDS Foundation

San Francisco AIDS Foundation promotes health, wellness and social justice for communities most impacted by HIV through sexual health and substance use services, advocacy, and community partnerships. Each year more than 21,000 people rely on SFAF programs and services, and millions more access SFAF health information online.