Getting to the needle point

Number of syringes issued by Alouette Addictions Society has more than doubled

Garry Joe

Garry Joe

The number of clean needles handed out to drug users by Alouette Addictions has more than doubled this year, from 18,000 to 50,000.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the number of drug users has jumped by that amount.

“What we’re seeing is that people are becoming more aware of the service. People are becoming more aware of their health,” and are exchanging the needles to keep themselves and the streets cleaner, said Annika Polegato, executive-director of Alouette Addictions Services.

Drug users exchange their dirty needles for clean ones so that when they inject drugs such as heroin, they minimize the spread of disease to themselves or others.

The needle exchange has been running for three years, but Alouette Addictions doesn’t track how many needles each user is taking.

The needles are exchanged with an addictions counsellor present, so a brief connection is made in case the addict wants further treatment.

“We know that people are using drugs. We want to keep them safe and healthy. We want to keep as many needles off the street as we can,” Polegato said.

Mayor-elect Nicole Read heard about needles during her campaign for the Nov. 15 civic election. People sent her pictures of needles found at Haney Nokai Park, on 222nd Street and from near Harry Hooge elementary, as well as the lacrosse box at Thomas Haney secondary.

“This needles in parks thing is outrageous. Any place where children play, it needs to be free from drug paraphernalia. That’s a bare minimum.”

Read is forming a mayor’s task force on homelessness and drug crime, but the more immediate goal is getting residents feeling safer.

Better lighting and more frequent patrols of parks and playgrounds could be one way of reducing the number of needles left lying around.

In her campaign literature, Read said she wanted to be tough on businesses or groups “if they profit one dollar off of the backs of our marginalized citizens.”

Now she’ll need more information about how to do that. She’ll leave the banning of any additional pay day loan companies from opening in Maple Ridge up to incoming councillor Tyler Shymkiw, who campaigned on that.

Read said in a campaign letter to the Salvation Army that there’s a pattern of prioritizing those in need in a way that overshadows some very legitimate concerns of Port Haney residents.

After the election, that continues to be a concern.

“I have heard from so many residents who are affected by property crime, which is suspected to be linked to drug addiction,” she said.

“For years, residents in Haney have been complaining about feeling unsafe.”

People still want to see Maple Ridge streets get better.

“I really do believe that the community sees it as a priority.”

According to Ridge Meadows RCMP, property crime in Maple Ridge is up 13 per cent from last year, mostly involving theft of or theft from autos. That’s happening in other cities, as well, said Supt. Dave Fleugel.

Calls about unwanted people hanging around are up 59 per cent from last year, but that’s a result of police efforts to get people and business owners to call them more often.

Police say there’s a link between drug addiction and property crimes and note that the drug seizures made in October, when five homes were raided, should reduce the amount of illegal substances on the streets and reduce property crime.

As for physical threats, violent crime has been reduced by nine per cent compared to last year.

Citing Metro Vancouver’s homelessness survey done in the spring, the new mayor said it should be possible to find homes for the 84 people considered to be living on the street.

Once homes have been found, “I think we need to work on preventing more from ending up on the street.”

She said providing affordable housing throughout Maple Ridge is a way to achieve that, and that Maple Ridge can look at what other cities do, as well as lobby the provincial government for money and work with developers.

Coun. Bob Masse, though, said much of the work that a mayor’s task force will take on is already underway.

“Anything we can do to help improve the situation, I would certainly be in favour of. But, “It kind of sounds like what we’re doing already.”

Masse said the new mayor needs to be given time to get oriented.

“There’s going to be a huge learning curve for anybody who comes into that position.”

He pressed for cleaning up the downtown during his first term on council and said he hasn’t seen any recent increase in crime.

“I think there’s an ebb and flow.”

John Griffiths, with Westridge Security, hired by the Downtown Maple Ridge Business Improvement Association, said the core area is stable. “I do know that we’re still having a lot of issues with prostitution,” as well as people sleeping outdoors.

During the summer, Westridge guards did patrols with RCMP.

“I think that was really good for us because that set the tone. I think that was a big help to us.”

All cities have similar issues, says Ineke Boekhorst, executive-director with the BIA, which has already contacted the new mayor and said it’s willing to look for solutions and welcomes a new task force.

“I don’t think there’s any kind of a crisis. It’s something that’s going on and our businesses just have to deal with it,” Boekhorst said.

Security can only do so much, she added.

With colder temperatures, “we certainly notice there’s way less people on the streets.”

Boekhorst disagrees that people are discouraged from shopping downtown, adding she doesn’t hear many complaints of people on the streets.

“In the daytime, we don’t have an awful lot of problems,” she said. “Perception is a big thing, I think.”

Read agrees with the long term plans to densify the downtown, but says there can be improvements made.

“I don’t think we’re achieving the type of pedestrian community, where a lot of people are walking about, maybe getting a coffee or doing some shopping” downtown.

She said the downtown plan needs to allocate more space to allow people to meet in public spaces.