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SANTA MONICA, Calif. - An open-air needle exchange program which distributes syringes, the overdose reversal drug Naloxone, fentanyl test strips and condoms is facing growing criticism in Santa Monica, where it operates in public spaces and parks intended for residents. Critics argue that the mobile program fuels addiction, attracts more transients to the beachside community, robs residents of their public spaces and creates safety hazards. City and law enforcement officials are also expressing concern — now calling for the services to be moved indoors. But Los Angeles County — which funds and oversees the program — is defending it, arguing that harm reduction services reduce overdose deaths, the public use of injectable drugs and transmission of communicable diseases, and protects public health and safety during what it calls the worst overdose crisis in history.
At any given time, people experiencing homelessness can be seen scattered throughout Santa Monica Parks and public spaces — some openly taking drugs, urinating, defecating and sleeping on benches and tables. Property owner, resident, and Santa Monica Coalition Co-founder John Alle refers to them as ‘transient addicts,’ and believes many are being drawn to the city by street-based mobile services like the ‘Harm Reduction Syringe Services Program.’
The needle exchange program sends workers with LA County and the Venice Family Clinic (VFC) to distribute packages of clean syringes, Naloxone, fentanyl test strips and condoms to the city’s unhoused population. Alle insists that it’s more of a distribution service rather than an exchange, as used needles can regularly be found strewn across the city’s parks.
"I don’t think there’s one individual that’s trading a used needle," he said. Alle said he has spoken to recipients of the packages, who said they are often given two clean needles, one of which they use; the other they sell to obtain drugs that don’t need a syringe to be ingested like methamphetamine.
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The Department of Public Health’s Division of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control (DPH-SAPC) contracts for the program operated in Santa Monica, which currently operates no more than three hours per week in various Santa Monica locations including Reed Park, Tongva Park, Palisades Park, The Incline, the 7-Eleven at 7th Street and Wilshire Boulevard and The 3rd Street Promenade. The Department provided the following statement to Fox 11:
"Los Angeles County is currently experiencing the worst overdose crisis in its history and overdose prevention services are critical to save lives and protect public health and safety. Harm reduction services represent an important tool and component of the multi-pronged solutions needed to effectively address the overdose crisis, homelessness, and other threats to health and wellbeing in Los Angeles County. Restricting access to harm reduction services will only exacerbate the current overdose and homelessness crises facing our communities. As part of our commitment to save lives and protect public health, we are in constant communication with Santa Monica officials to address community concerns and needs."
But Santa Monica officials have expressed concerns about the execution of the program. In September 2022, then-Mayor Sue Himmelrich sent an open letter to county officials urging that the program be relocated from public spaces — preferably indoors. Current Mayor Gleam Davis echoed the sentiment, and said that Santa Monica is committed to addressing the issue of homelessness in a holistic and compassionate manner:
"Santa Monica has urged the LA County Department of Public Health to move their Harm Reduction Syringe Service Program to a service rich environment (preferably indoors) where individuals in need of substance abuse, mental health, and other services can coordinate and work directly with service providers. It is our hope that we can work with the County to pursue new approaches to help those struggling with substance abuse," Davis said in a statement on behalf of the city. Representatives with the Santa Monica Police Department told FOX 11 that even though Safe Syringe Programs may have shown a "reduction of health risk behaviors for drug users," they "should be done in a controlled and supervised environment, and away from public spaces such as our parks."
According to the county, most harm reduction agencies do some form of mobile work, so similar programs often operate alongside harm reduction services in areas where they’re offered, like on LA’s Skid Row.
DPH-SAPC said it works with the Venice Family Clinic (VFC) to distribute some 250 needles every month in Santa Monica. Clients who are interested in substance use treatment are referred to the VFC Clinic SUMMIT program, and if they require medical intervention, the homeless outreach unit from the clinic will go see the patients in their location. The county said that "each interaction individuals have with outreach staff becomes an opportunity to discuss ways they can decrease their risk for overdose and for residents to connect with treatment when they are ready."
But, Alle argues that most of the addicts living in Santa Monica’s public spaces are not capable of physically getting themselves to a facility for treatment. He thinks that additional services like medical supervision should be offered in the same location and at the same time as the needle exchanges, and that clinics should continue operations through the night.
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"We want the parks available for families, for kids," Alle said. "We want the homeless to be able to have a place from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. to go and spend the night so that they don’t suffer in the cold, in the rain. And we want them to be treated. We want mental health facilities so they can be treated for their mental health, whether it be psychosis, schizophrenia, drug rehabilitation, alcoholism."
The Santa Monica Coalition is comprised of city residents and business owners who believe that more needs to be done to address public safety concerns in the community. Since the group’s first sign reading "Santa Monica is Not Safe" went up on the Third Street Promenade, they’ve had hundreds of requests for smaller versions for personal display.