The Orange County Needle Exchange Program’s (OCNEP) town hall in Santa Ana on Tuesday night was far more civil than the non-profit’s first town hall meeting in Anaheim in late August. The Santa Ana town hall was the second town hall meeting hosted by the OCNEP. The OCNEP hopes that the dialogue opened with the community at these town halls will help them improve their approach to the proposed mobile needle exchange; and will help garner the support of the communities of Anaheim, Orange, Costa Mesa, and Santa Ana–where they’ll be operating.
Two things differentiated Tuesday’s town hall at the Delhi Center from August’s meeting in Anaheim: the lack of a large, vicious crowd; and the lack of notable politicians making provocative speeches for the audience.
Only a handful of people were present at Tuesday’s town hall at the Delhi Center, and those present remained relatively civil (with a few exceptions). Some of the best points levied against the OCNEP were brought up by a woman from the SEIU United Service Workers–a union representing 40 thousand Californian janitors, security officers, and airport workers. At the heart of her concerns were transparency for the community, and solutions for a more effective solution to preventing used needles from littering Santa Ana streets.
“Governor Brown said, ‘The Program is not only to work with local health officers and police Chiefs, but with neighborhood associations as well.’ I have not seen that. No effort has been made to put out flyers,” she said. The woman, who wished for anonymity, believed that the OCNEP needed to do a better job of involving the community if they were to be successful. She also believed that the OCNEP needed to implement sharps containers around the city to prevent litter, but feared that the community would bear the cost burden of maintaining sharps containers.
Much of the community present on Tuesday felt the same way. They felt weary of the needle exchange opening because they want to keep their streets clean of dangerous litter, and because they want the community to have a say in where the exchange will operate. Most understood that a functioning needle exchange was a key to preventing communicable diseases, and few opposed the OCNEP on a moral standpoint.
However, as in Anaheim, there were some who believed that the needle exchange would cause a surging swarm of drug addicts and vagrants into the cities of Costa Mesa, Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana. These people believe that a hoard of junkies will flock to the needle exchange like mosquitos to a lamp, bringing crime and immorality with them in the process.
While a Santa Ana doctor of psychology and substance abuse specialist was raising his concerns about the needle exchange and the benefits it could bring to the community, a fight nearly broke out when a man called Concerned Citizen Chris began shouting at the speaker. Their argument below clearly demonstrates the divide within the community over the needle exchange.
–Dr. “There’s nothing more frightening than to have dangers in our community, but these dangers don’t belong to [the OCNEP]. They belong to all of us. We don’t have drug addicts who are after our children, they are our children. They are human beings and they need help. If there’s a lack of communications, I’d like to see people sign up and help. To sit back with your arms crossed and say, ‘You’re not doing enough,’ is avoiding responsibility. This problem belongs to all of us.”
–Chris “How do you know what I, and some of the people in this room have done? You don’t!”
–OCNEP “Chris, thank you, but we have a set format.”
–Chris “No, no no.”
–OCNEP “Chris, please sit down so you can have your chance.”
–Chris “It’s a free country!”
–Audience member “Sir, please go up there and speak.”
–Chris “No! I’m not going to, he has no place to sit there and judge us. I don’t need to listen to his bull shit!”
Chris left the meeting immediately after the argument. Displays like this have been common at OCNEP’s town halls, but they don’t represent the communities as a whole. Most people understand that the cities chosen for a needle exchange have inordinately high rates of opioid overdose, HIV, and hepatitis; and see that the OCNEP is working to keep the county safe. Costa Mesa, for example, was chosen because it had an opioid overdose mortality rate 253 percent higher than the California average.
The OCNEP did a good job addressing the citizen’s concerns at Tuesday’s meeting. The OCNEP is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, which means they will not place a financial burden on the cities they serve. Members from the OCNEP also agreed that they do need to rework their community outreach by improving their phone and website information. Lastly, the OCNEP said it wants to pursue a dialogue with community members about placing sharps containers around cities to prevent a litter of needles.
Tuesday’s meeting lacked the political fiasco of the Anaheim meeting as well. While candidates Todd Spitzer, Sandra Genis, and Harry Sidhu approached the podium to speak at Anaheim’s town hall–seemingly for their own political gain–no candidate spoke at Santa Ana’s meeting. However, Paul Gonzales, who is running for City Council of Santa Ana’s Second Ward, was in the audience. Gonzales told the Weekly that he felt the citizens had valid fears about the return of the needle exchange, but he still felt that the science behind the needle exchange made it beneficial for preventing the spread of disease.
“To me,” Gonzales said, “the meeting was a positive step. But, as some folks pointed out, attendance was low. The OCNEP needs to continue to work with the community. Residents zeroed in on the negative elements, and rightfully so. Most neighborhoods surrounding the Civic Center, where I live, have been negatively affected by drugs and homelessness. I understand that as a community it is unacceptable that we shouldn’t have to side step needles.”
“At the same time, I don’t feel like the needle exchange is entirely to blame. We’re in the midst of a humanitarian crisis of homelessness and drug addiction in The County. The Existence of the OCNEP should, in theory, make it easier to alleviate this. I think they need continue to practice good faith by working with the communities even more, going forward.”
All politicians who spoke at the Anaheim meeting denounced the OCNEP with a gruff of NIMBY anger. This approach is a cop-out, and isn’t working to solve the increasing rates of drug related infections and deaths in OC. Gonzales’s approach, however, is both critical of the OCNEP, while still hoping to improve OC’s struggle against the drug epidemic. This approach of holding the OCNEP, their customers, and the communities they operate in up to scrutiny is the only way to prevent the spread of disease and to keep the cities safe from littered needles.