Erika D. Smith

Drug addicts leave parks stuck with discarded needles

Kirsten Spall and her son Robert Spore play catch in April 2016 at McClatchy Park, which Oak Park residents have worked hard to make safer for children. However, Sacramento employees say they often find used needles in the bushes there.
Kirsten Spall and her son Robert Spore play catch in April 2016 at McClatchy Park, which Oak Park residents have worked hard to make safer for children. However, Sacramento employees say they often find used needles in the bushes there.

Whitney Swarthout isn’t a regular at McClatchy Park, even though she was there on Thursday, sitting on a swing and soaking up the autumn sun with her newborn son, Charles. Usually, she sees the park from a far more disgusting angle – through the fence in her backyard, where a set of heavy bleachers has become a de facto spot for doing drugs.

“There are used needles all in my backyard and all over that bench,” she said, pointing across the baseball diamond toward her home on Sixth Avenue. “I don’t know if they put needles through my fence line or what, but we find them and toss them back over. It’s really bad.”

What Swarthout and, I suspect, many people don’t know is that city employees pick up dozens of used needles a day from a number of Sacramento parks. McClatchy is one of them. On a typical day, they will pull 50 or 60 syringes, just from the bushes.

It’s disgusting. But it’s also not hard to see how it happens.

Not far from where Swarthout was watching a sleeping Charles, two other children were playing on swings and monkey bars, and men were crouched on a collection of picnic tables, their eyes glazed over and their speech loud and slurred.

Just past the portable toilets, a woman twirled in circles, swinging her arms to the rhythm of the N.W.A. classic “Dopeman,” blasting from a boombox.

“It was once said by a man who couldn’t quit, dope man please can I have another hit.”

It seemed like an appropriate soundtrack.

As opioid abuse has skyrocketed in Sacramento and the rest of the country, such scenes have become common. Intravenous drug use isn’t as taboo as it once was and so cities have had to contend with addicts shooting up in public – sometimes passing out, sometimes dying, but almost always dropping needles.

Stories abound of police finding people in public restrooms, on buses, in cars and, yes, in parks. A police department in Ohio made waves when it posted to Facebook a photo of a couple, unconscious from a heroin overdose in the front seat of an SUV, their eyes rolled back in their heads, while a child sat wide-eyed in the backseat.

“It is time that the non-drug using public sees what we are now dealing with on a daily basis,” the city of East Liverpool wrote.

Nationally, about 80 people die from opioid overdoses every day, and many others come close, their lives spared with a shot of Narcan. In Seattle, things have gotten so bad that the city is considering the extraordinary step of opening “safe spaces” for addicts to shoot up under medical supervision, instead of in restrooms, alleys and homeless encampments.

In Denver, employees have collected more than 3,500 needles in its downtown parks – and that’s only through August. In San Francisco, so many addicts have dropped needles around the Civic Center and U.N. Plaza that the city helped form a rapid-response team to clean up syringes stuffed in gutters.

Even here, I’ve stepped over needles tossed in the grass in midtown. Not long ago, I watched a guy shoot up in broad daylight at 19th and L streets, toss the needle in an alley and ride off on a bicycle down the sidewalk.

The problem is overwhelming. But it’s worth noting that many cities have tried something that Sacramento hasn't done in a big way – install needle disposal containers in public places, such as in parks and city-run public restrooms.

The containers, commonly known as sharps containers, look like sturdy mailboxes. Denver has one along its Cherry Creek trail and San Francisco has at least 10 in various locations throughout the city.

Some might think that installing them in Sacramento would be a waste of time and money. That people who are high wouldn’t think to properly dispose of their needles. But that’s simply not true.

Both Denver and San Francisco say their containers get used quite a bit. And the one place where we can measure usage in Sacramento, at the Pit Stop portable restroom in the River District, homeless men and women have deposited some 600 needles in the attached sharps container between late June and August.

These numbers haven’t completely escaped city officials. Hearing complaints from city employees about having to clean up needles – which is completely understandable – the Department of Parks and Recreation has been discussing whether to install sharps containers in a handful of parks.

It would be a pilot program, said Operations Manager Shannon Brown, and would require a conversation with people who live near the parks that would be affected.

I say forget the pilot program and just install the containers. There is clearly a need.

And while city officials are at it, they also should reopen and extend the hours of at least a few of the many city-run public restrooms that were closed during the recession. There’s clearly a need, judging from the human waste found in people’s yards and along the American River Parkway.

Yet the city has resisted reopening restrooms in midtown and downtown 24 hours a day out of the very real concern that they will become magnets for crime and drug use by homeless people. No one wants to fish needles from the toilet, just like no one wants to pull needles from the bushes.

Done right, though, Sacramento could renovate a handful of restrooms, particularly those in parks, and add sharps containers, as many other cities in the opioid-infested Midwest and East Coast, have done. The key would be to use the Pit Stop program as a model.

Although Pit Stop has been running only since June near Loaves & Fishes, the response from neighboring businesses has been good. The restroom is basically a trailer and attendants stand guard to make sure people don’t destroy the restrooms or use drugs inside.

It’s a pilot program, however, and the City Council will have to decide whether to allot more money to extend it or expand it to other restrooms. It’s a no-brainer.

Sacramento has a chance to make the city cleaner and safer for everyone. Can you imagine what will happen the first time a child steps on a used needle?

“I’d rather them put needles in one place that’s not my yard,” Swarthout said, “because I’m sure they’re going to do (drugs) anyway.”

What’s happening at McClatchy and other parks in the city is a public health disaster waiting to happen. Sacramento, we can do better.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith