According to an analysis of data by the City of Ottawa, the number of complaints about discarded needles has increased by nearly 50 per cent from 2015 to 2016.
A total of 144 complaints were filed with Ottawa’s 3-1-1 Contact Centre in 2016 – the centre then makes arrangements for discarded needle pickup. According to the City’s website, workers “make an effort to respond to all needle retrieval requests within one hour.”
Current data shows that the first eight months of 2017 is recording an even higher volume of complaints than 2016 did.
Total Number of Complaints by Year
This graph shows the number of complaints about discarded needles per each year since 2013, according to City of Ottawa 3-1-1 data.
Total Number of Complaints per Month (2016 vs. 2017)
This graph is a comparison between the first eight recorded months of 2017 with the same months in 2016 in terms of the number of complaints about discarded needles filed monthly, according to City of Ottawa 3-1-1 data.
Councillor Mathieu Fleury, whose ward, Rideau-Vanier, has the highest number of complaints, says that the increase of complaints over the years show a “shift” in drug use.
He says the rise of Canada’s opioid crisis has signified a change in the types of drugs being used. Opioids, like heroin, are usually administered intravenously. Fleury says the increased usage of injection as the preferred drug intake method has naturally led to more needles being found in the streets.
Discarded needles present a danger to residents, especially children and pets like dogs, as they are sharp and may be contaminated.
Julia Paulson has worked for the past two summers as a City of Ottawa parks maintenance worker. She says that a portion of her duties were to safely retrieve needles from parks when complaints were called in to 3-1-1.
She says she noticed more needle retrieval requests this past summer than last. “We get in our truck and usually go immediately to the area, as the City takes these complaints seriously and want someone to get the needles as soon as the complaint is filed.”
Even for a trained worker with safety equipment, she says that the pickup process can be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking. As she mimes the proper way to pick a used needle up off the floor, she says she can understand the fear the complainants have when they spot one.
“You can’t help but think, ‘There could be infectious diseases on this,’ she says, with a note of tension in her voice. “I’ve heard horror stories from other city workers.”
During training sessions for the job, Paulson says a story was told where one employee wasn’t holding the end of the needle away from his body and accidentally stabbed himself when he stumbled.
Hannah Walt is a Masters of Social Work student at Carleton University who has worked in several harm reduction programs over the past few years.
Walt says that discarded needles do present a danger to residents – but that’s why supervised injection sites are so important. Drug users need a place to safely administer drugs under supervision, where they can be watched for danger of overdosing but also to make sure these used needles are safely disposed of properly.
She says many people who are critical of the injection sites don’t understand that it actually makes everyone safer – the users and the community residents, by keeping discarded needles off of streets.
Fleury says that he’s filed two inquiries to Ottawa Public Health, one about treatment options and the other about needle hunters, since the opening of the new supervised injection site in his ward at 179 Clarence Street.
He wants to know what kinds of treatment services Public Health is providing at the injection site, and if there are plans to expand needle hunters’ contracts in his ward. Needle hunters are those who specifically patrol areas to find needles and dispose of them – before they are complained about. Currently, he says hunters don’t work weekends but he is interested in seeing if that needs to be changed to meet demand.
Fleury wonders, “Are we flexible enough to respond to these new needs of both the drug users and the community?”