While there are many contributing factors to the deteriorating state of San Francisco’s streets, the opioid epidemic’s role in perpetuating the cycle of homelessness, crime and filth cannot be ignored. About 8,000 needles are picked up off the streets each month by the public health department alone. Point blank, we are in an opioid crisis.
This spring the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce led a delegation of business and city leaders to Vancouver, a city that has grappled with a major opioid epidemic, a housing affordability crisis and homelessness. We met with Vancouver’s leaders, including Mayor Gregor Robertson, to learn how they are addressing these most pressing issues. We also toured Insite, the first legal supervised safe injection site in North America.
In the 1990s, in the midst of an HIV epidemic among injection drug users, drug-related overdose deaths reached record levels in Vancouver. After intensive research, public education and advocacy, Insite, opened in 2003 in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where there is a high number of long-term injection drug users. Since then, Insite has never experienced an overdose death. In 2017, the site recorded 175,464 visits by 7,301 unique users.
More than 30 peer-reviewed studies show that Vancouver’s supervised injection and needle exchange programs decrease injections taking place on city streets and the number of needles discarded in public places, reduce the incidence of overdose deaths, and prevent the transmission of deadly diseases.
Safe injection sites are in the pipeline in San Francisco. Earlier this year, the San Francisco Health Commission voted unanimously to support the opening of safe injection sites, following the Safe Injection Services Task Force’s positive recommendation. They are supported by the leading candidates for mayor, and some of the legal hurdles would be overcome with the passage of AB186, that would approve pilot programs in a handful of counties, including San Francisco.
Our street environment is becoming more and more of an impediment to growing our businesses, attracting customers and retaining our workforce. Many organizations, including the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, have not yet taken a position on safe injection sites. But we should all consider following Vancouver’s lead. While not a panacea, safe injection sites could be one of many tools to address the complicated state of our streets. As a member of the CleanSafe365 Coalition, we urge the next mayor to protect the health of San Francisco residents, employees and visitors 365 days each and every year.