Parks: Council are concerned about needles in the park. Emily Sawicki

Mayor Sue Himmelrich signed a letter last week requesting LA County leadership halt a needle exchange program at Reed Park and “immediately [move] this 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.”

Himmelrich sent the letter after a unanimous request from fellow council members (excluding Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan, who was not present at the hearing). 

“I think many people believe the program is a good program. But the [Santa Monica City] staff talked to Los Angeles County representatives over the last three months and it’s administered through a grant by a service nonprofit. And they haven’t been willing to examine other locations,” Councilmember Phil Brock said, summarizing earlier council comments, during the Tuesday, Sept. 13, hearing. He added that he believed people who used the program would be willing to go to another site, if it moved. 

“We think, in the city, [there are] probably seven or eight good locations,” Brock continued. “I think several people talked to some of the people that were receiving the needles, and they said they would go where the clean needles were — that it wasn’t that people had to come — that they had to come to them, because it was drawing more people to Reed Park and other parks in the city.”

The program, sponsored by the LA County Department of Public Health (DPH) through its partner, Venice Family Clinic, appears to be the only such needle exchange program on the westside, according to laodprevention.org, which tracks syringe service program sites around Los Angeles County. The closest sites appeared to be located in Lawndale and West Adams. DPH Medical Director and Clinical Services Branch Chief Dr. Brian Hurley confirmed that the program at Reed Park was the only fixed-location Syringe Services Program on the westside.

“Venice Family Clinic’s Common Ground Program is the only LA County certified syringe program with a fixed location on the Westside,” Hurley said in an email to the Daily Press. “We are aware that Asian American Drug Abuse Program (AADAP) also occasionally operates nearby Opioid Treatment Programs within LA County Service Planning Area 5, but they don’t have a fixed location on the Westside of Los Angeles.”

Christine Emerson Reed Park, better known as Reed Park, is bound by California Avenue to the north and Wilshire Boulevard to the south, and lies between 7th Street and Lincoln Boulevard. It houses tennis courts, basketball courts, a meeting room/auditorium and a playground. In recent years, it has also gained a reputation for homeless activity and, in the words of Brock, “having it [the needle exchange] next to a children’s playground was not appropriate,” according to earlier council statements.

A representative for Venice Family Clinic referred all questions about the program to DPH. 

Hurley confirmed the set program is based in Reed Park, but sometimes similar services are offered at other locations on a case-by-case basis. 

“There aren’t other harm reduction syringe services routinely scheduled at a park located in the City of Santa Monica,” Hurley wrote. “That said, there have been individual instances where the Common Ground Program may accompany health outreach teams for people experiencing homelessness into other parks in the City of Santa Monica to offer harm reduction syringe services.”

Council members indicated a desire for other support services to be offered in addition to the harm reduction syringe program. Councilmember Lana Negrete, speaking during the hearing, said she had two relatives who were suffering with drug addiction and that she believed offering syringes without other services would be “more harmful” to them and other people utilizing the service. 

“So if we can get people where they’re making multiple touchpoints and they’re not just getting a needle but there’s a more robust approach to getting these people the next level of help that they need, I think, then we’re going to start to see a difference,” Negrete said. 

When asked what additional services are included in the current program at Reed Park, Hurley indicated several: “LA County certified harm reduction syringe service programs offer naloxone distribution, safer use equipment including sterile syringes, referrals to medical, mental health, and substance use disorder treatment services, HIV and hepatitis screening, referrals for hepatitis vaccination, screening for sexually transmitted infections, referrals to housing services for individuals experiencing homelessness, and services related to provision of education and materials for the reduction of sexual risk behaviors, including (but not limited to) the distribution of condoms.”

emily@smdp.com