In lieu of state funding, one volunteer program aims to keep the streets safe from dirty needles
Last September, the Downtown Santa Cruz community was dealt a firm blow when the Santa Cruz AIDS Project’s Drop-In Center fell prey to state budget cuts and was forced to close its doors.
For 10 years the center provided a safe-haven for many in the community—whether they had fallen on hard times, needed shelter from the elements, or were dealing with serious drug addictions. The center also dispersed information on drug rehabilitation and medical treatments, as well as administered a syringe exchange program (SEP). Now, with such a noticeable void left in the community, volunteer groups have been scrambling to provide the lost services. One such group is Street Outreach Supporters (S.O.S.).
Founded two years ago when state budget cuts first began to affect the Drop-In Center, S.O.S. initially helped with the funding and supplying of clean syringes, sterile water and other necessities.
“It’s part of our name,“ explains Sarah Best, a veteran S.O.S. volunteer. “We were supporting existing programs and then it transitioned because there was no needle exchange: we were it.”
Since last September, they have grown into a network of more than 40 dedicated volunteers funded by a mixture of grants, benefit parties and a grassroots network of other syringe exchange programs. They also oversee a satellite program in Watsonville, where a single volunteer attempts to provide exchanges for the whole city.
Traveling the county in an inconspicuous van provided by the Public Health Department, S.O.S. provides exchanges to the public four times a week at two separate locations in Santa Cruz. On Tuesdays and Fridays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on lower Ocean Street, in the parking lot on the corner of Bixby Street and Barson Street; then on Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the County Public Health building on Emeline Avenue. They provide what is known as a “point for point” program: people participating are only allowed as many clean needles as the number of used syringes they exchange, thus keeping used syringes off of the streets. S.O.S. also offers free “Instant HIV Testing” on Tuesdays and have registered nurses on site for any medical questions or problems.
“We are a harm reduction coalition,” describes Best. “We aim to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis and other diseases that can be passed via needle and intravenous drug usage.”
The idea of a neighborhood SEP has not been met without controversy. “It’s a common misconception that somehow by providing the supplies you’re going to encourage people to do it,” says another volunteer who wishes to remain anonymous. “But all you have to do is look at the evidence.”
It’s still too early to statistically determine how much of an impact the closure of the Drop-In Center has had on the community. However, according to the Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project, in the decade that the center was operating, the number of diagnosed Hepatitis B cases fell by 40 percent and the number of diagnosed AIDS cases fell from 20 a year to only three. Only time will tell if the trend continues.
While some programs date back to the 1970s, the first governmentsponsored SEP was instituted in 1984 in Amsterdam. Since then, 77 countries have some form of needle exchange program, with every state in the U.S. conducting their own version of exchange. In 2001, a study sponsored by UC Davis found that despite the controversy, SEPs do reduce a user’s exposure to HIV/AIDS.
“We reached a lot of folks at the Drop-In Center,” states Penelope Jernberg, another seasoned S.O.S. volunteer. “There definitely is a percentage of the community that is feeling the loss.” Jernberg is one of several S.O.S. volunteers who also worked at the SCAP Drop-In Center until its doors closed last year. “Some [syringe users] don’t feel comfortable at the homeless shelter, for whatever reason, and now they don’t have their only safe resource,” she says.
S.O.S.’s mobile needle exchange is another part of the harm-reduction model aimed at making the targeted demographic feel comfortable. “The idea is to meet people where they’re at,” says Jernberg. “It’s a non-judgmental model. We build this trusting relationship so then we can provide them with all kinds of information that may help them out.”
The idea is that drug abstinence, like in sex education, is not a realistic possibility. There will always be someone trying to get high for whatever reason, so the best option lies in educating users, and the public, about the safest choices to take. “A lot of these behaviors that people are engaging in are illegal,” says Best. “We want them to feel safe enough to come to us without getting in trouble.”
This means that confidentiality is key. Along with providing safe and secure on-site exchanges and testing, the Street Outreach Supporters also have a unique home delivery service. “It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Best explains. “If people can’t leave their house for whatever reason, they can give us a call.”
Every Thursday before 5:30 p.m., participants can call the S.O.S. hotline and leave a message. Keeping with their strict code of confidentiality, if a participant does not want a call back for whatever reason, S.O.S. will oblige the request; no questions asked. But don’t let the “delivery service” moniker fool you into misinterpreting S.O.S.’s mission, says Jernberg. “We’re not passing out free samples,” she says. “They’re coming to us with something they already have and we’re trying to make it as safe as possible for the community.”
Like most volunteer-run programs, funding in the age of budget cuts is always a problem. “We’ve been lucky so far,” says Best. “This year we’ve had $15,000 worth of grants, but they are running out.” She is also quick to point out the sad irony of their situation. “With anti-retrovirals becoming more effective and increasing HIV/AIDS patients’ life expectancy, they are also costing patients and tax payers more over time.” According to the Center for Disease Control, the “cost per HIV infection prevented by SEPs has been calculated at $4,000 to $12,000.” Compare this to the “estimated $190,000 medical cost of treating a person infected with HIV,” and it’s easy to see how much a $.10 syringe can save. “Unfortunately,” says Jernberg, “It’s very hard to find grants because most foundations and charities don’t want to fund SEPs because they’re controversial; so there’s only a limited number of foundations we can go to.”
“The main thing,” Best adds, “is that we need donations, volunteers and understanding. Try to learn what this is all about, talk to people and help spread the word.”
Learn more at shootclean.org or by calling 239-0657.