PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Some organizations tasked with cleaning up downtown Portland say the number of needles they’re finding is increasing exponentially.
Just in the past ’21-’22 fiscal year, Downtown Portland Clean & Safe collected more than 180,000 syringes in the downtown corridor, and while they say a lot are still found in the streets and public areas, it appears more people are using the safe syringe deposit boxes placed around town.
From thousands of bags of trash picked up to cleaning graffiti tags, Clean & Safe has been busy this past year, especially when it comes to collecting used needles. While they still see plenty in gutters and sidewalks, much of those needles are coming from safe syringe drop boxes in downtown hot spots like Bud Clark Commons and 4th and Davis.
“A sizeable and notable increase in the needles found in the safe deposit boxes which is good in that people are utilizing those which is what we want. We want to eliminate as much as possible, especially uncapped needles in the public right-of-way,” said Mark Wells, executive director of Downtown Portland Clean & Safe. “Last month, roughly, we had about 4,000 that we picked up on the street that were loose, and that can be a single needle or sometimes we’ll get a call from a business, and they’ll have four or five or 15 needles in one spot. And I think we had about 15,000 needles just last month from those four boxes.”
But when it comes to those needles, Clean & Safe numbers show an exponential change in recent years, going from less than 5,000 needles collected in 2014 to more than 180,000 this past year. It’s something Wells attributes to the opioid crisis.
The organization works alongside other government entities like Multnomah County, which says the big jump between mid-2020 and 2021 could be due to a COVID-safe change in their syringe program, going away from one-used-for-one-clean transaction to multiples at a time, to dissuade crowds and people lining up close together.
“People could dispose of all of the different syringes that they brought in to us, whether they were free or in sharps containers, and we would give people the supplies they needed and as many syringes as they thought they were going to use,” said Kim Toevs, the Communicable Disease and Harm Reduction Director for Multnomah County. “We changed to a needs-based model and that was actually in align with best practices demonstrated in other places throughout our country.”
Going beyond the areas covered by Clean & Safe, Toevs says they’ve seen a decrease in people coming in for needles, likely signaling a change in the substances users are opting for — but they’re still collecting hundreds of thousands of syringes from the area.
“We have had a slight decrease in the number of folks that are visiting us recently,” said Toevs. “I think there is a little bit of a shift right now in drug use and drug availability and people are smoking their drugs rather than injecting.”
Even as these clean-up efforts like needle deposit boxes are shown to work, Wells says it’s impossible to ignore the greater issue.
“I think you can look at Clean & Safe’s statistics as kind of a barometer for livability and challenges that we’re seeing in our social services, mental health crisis,” said Wells. “I think it’s just really being honest with ourselves and saying we have a very severe drug problem. We have individuals that need reliable and timely access to drug treatment.”
In addition to sterile syringes and new sharps containers, Multnomah County’s syringe exchange program also provides overdose kits, safe sex supplies and referrals to mental and medical care and substance treatment centers. They hope providing these resources can reduce the risk of public health issues like the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.