Saturday, March 3, 2007

Vancouver's other Olympic sport

On Friday afternoon I was walking up Main St. on the Downtown Eastside, headed to a coffee shop with my friend J.D. Under the Georgia viaduct, J.D. asked two workers wearing red coats with strips of green fluorescent tape across the back, “How’s business?” It was obvious what business they were in. One of them, a 20-something white guy with light brown hair, a beard and wire-rimmed glasses, was carrying the tell tale plastic yellow pail.

They’d picked up 357 intravenous needles today, this affable man with geometric tattoos on one side of his neck, told J.D.

How many needles do you pick up on an average day?, J.D. asked. “Two hundred to two hundred and fifty,” the man said. Today was busier than usual, he explained as he ducked into the alley by the run-down Cobalt Hotel. That was because they had come across a pile of garbage in an alley; he spread his arms to show how wide the pile had been: “We took over a hundred needles out of there.” Near Carnegie Centre?, J.D. asked. “On the other side of Hastings, in the alley.”

The tattooed man’s partner, a white guy in his late 20’s or early 30’s with dark brown hair, bent down to pick up a needle from the sidewalk in front of a high rise apartment building near Main and Terminal. Needles are easy to spot with their orange tips.

It is common to see workers paid by the Health Consumer Board, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, or United We Can walking the streets of the Downtown Eastside picking up needles. But these workers are too often hidden from sight when proponents of InSite, the supervised drug injection site argue that a sign of the controversial facility’s success is the reduction in the number of needles strewn on the streets. The fact that workers being paid to pick up needles account for a large percentage of this reduction – "Does Tony Clement know where junkies' needles go?" – must be factored into any assessment of the supervised injection site. Afterall, the more than 100 needles that the worker on Friday claimed to have retrieved from a pile of garbage in an alley were on the same block as InSite, at the opposite end of the 100 block Hastings Street.

As we walked ahead of the two workers, J.D. turned to me, “Did you get those numbers?” You could write a story on this, he suggested. “Call it, 'Vancouver’s other Olympic sport.’