An unusual program has cleaned up hundreds of thousands of discarded needles in Boston by buying them from homeless people who collect them from streets and parks, city officials say.
Since it began last December, the Community Syringe Redemption Program has collected more than 768,000 needles and reduced complaints by 50 percent, and it now picks up an average of 17,000 a week, according to the program’s data. It also provides a link to social services and addiction treatment for participants, who often lack shelter or use drugs themselves.
In the early morning of each weekday, the redemption program sets up shop in three locations: Atkinson Street near Newmarket Square, Haymarket Square, and Nubian Square. About 75 people show up each day to pick up a sharps container and collect up to 50 needles, receiving $1 for each batch of five.
The buyback program has won praise from neighbors in the South End who have been engaged in the area’s seemingly intractable problems of addiction and homelessness.
“There are precious few win-wins when it comes to dealing with the daily impacts of hundreds of people using drugs in this area: This seems to be one of them,” said David Stone, president of the Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association in the South End, in an e-mail.
But the effort was not enough to prevent a youth football team from abandoning a Roxbury park earlier this month because of the discarded needles.
The Boston Bengals youth football team decided to merge with the Brookline Jamaica Plain Patriots so players would no longer have to use the field at Clifford Park, where coaches say they had to pick up numerous needles before each game, and where they’ve witnessed public nudity and people overdosing.
The park, at 160 Norfolk Ave., lies a half-mile south of the “Mass and Cass” neighborhood, the notorious gathering spot for people who use drugs, named after the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
Domingos DaRosa, president of the Boston Bengals, is not convinced the needle litter problem is getting any better, regardless of the new program. “The city is sugarcoating this issue,” he said.
But Devin Larkin, director of recovery services for the Boston Public Health Commission, disagreed, saying the city had in fact ”seen a big improvement this summer.”
Larkin attributed much of the improvement to the Community Syringe Redemption Program, the first project of a new company called Addiction Response Resources. The founders, Allie Hunter and Josh DeLisle, won the support of the city and $60,000 from RIZE, a foundation focused on combating the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts.
The redemption program, which Hunter believes is the only one of its kind in the country, was launched in December. The goal was to collect 1,000 needles a week. Instead, the participants hauled in that number in the first hour. “At that moment, it was, ‘OK, this is going to work,’ ” Hunter said.
“We’re collecting about 4,000 needles per day. We took in over 31,000 needles this week alone,” she said Friday.
Anyone can sign up to participate, and more than 1,400 have so far. About 75 people show up each day and most earn $10 for collecting the maximum of 50 needles, although lately they’ve had to range farther to find that many, Hunter said.
The early-morning work gives people a sense of purpose and a potential link to services, said Hunter, cofounder and president of Addiction Response Resources. The team offers masks and the overdose-reversing drug naloxone for participants to have on hand if needed, and can provide a doorway into addiction treatment.
“We try to have a positive interaction with them,” she said. “It might be the only positive interaction that someone has during the day.”
So far, 638 people involved in the needle collection work have had “a meaningful conversation about treatment or recovery, or other services,” and at least a few a week follow through on those referrals, Hunter said.
Additionally, the program recently hired two of its participants to work as assistants in running the program, developing experience and skills that could lead to future employment, she said.
Starting July 1, the needle redemption effort has been funded by the city with a $388,000 allotment for fiscal year 2022.
“The needle buy-back program has been one of the only consistent success stories we have seen at Mass and Cass,” said Stephen Fox of the South End Forum, an umbrella group of neighborhood associations, in an e-mail. “Almost without exception, the folks I am speaking with day to day recognize a significant decrease in needles on the ground since the needle buy-back program has been operating.”
“It’s been incredibly successful,” agreed Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association. The number of needles on the street have been markedly reduced, but not eliminated, she said in an interview.
“We’ve had an explosion of the number of individuals on the street in Boston,” she said. “It’s not stopping the root cause.”
Although the buyback program doesn’t operate at Clifford Park, the Atkinson Street site is just a few blocks away.
Additionally, the city employs six people who collect discarded needles throughout the day, as well as respond to complaints on the city’s 311 line. The sharps team sweeps the Clifford Park area twice a day, said Larkin, of the Boston Public Health Commission. There are also two kiosks for needle disposal at Clifford Park.
Larkin said the team has received fewer complaints from coaches at the park this summer than in years past.
“I’m not seeing it being worse than what we’ve seen in past summers, so I don’t know why the football team is relocating,” she said. “I would never minimize the issue of having syringes or sharps in a park or school. It merits a response. But based on the data, we’re not seeing that area more hard-hit this summer. We’re actually seeing an improvement.”
But DaRosa, the football team president, who on Tuesday lost a bid for an at-large seat on the City Council, said he believes the problem has gotten worse. Even on a recent rainy day, there were plenty of needles on the playground, he said.
If complaints to the 311 line have dropped, DaRosa said, it’s because “people have grown tired of complaining. So they’re not putting in 311 reports because it doesn’t go anywhere.”
The city has focused its efforts on appeasing influential people in the South End, neglecting the Roxbury side of Massachusetts Avenue, DaRosa asserted.
In the South End, leaders of neighborhood associations said that needle litter has definitely declined.
“They’ve been doing a great job picking up needles and encouraging people to return their needles,” said George Stergios, president of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association.
But he wonders whether the problem has just moved out of his neighborhood into another one. “It could be that my neighborhood, Worcester Square, is much better, but for whatever reason Clifford Park has gotten worse.”
Andy Brand, a South End resident who analyzes the city’s 311 numbers, said the complaints are down, but those numbers don’t include the needles that neighbors pick up on their own. A group of neighbors has been cleaning up Clifford Park, he said.
Another reason why complaints are down, Brand said, is that the city has moved the homeless encampment to an industrial area, where it is less visible. “There’s a lot more people there. There’s fewer needles that are reported,” he said.