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Little Progress Moving Needle Exchange Program Indoors
By Jorge Casuso
March 23, 2023 -- More than six months after former Mayor Sue Himmelrich requested that the County move a program that hands out clean needles to drug users indoors, the effort has reached a standstill.
In the interim, residents are continuing to express frustration with the overdose prevention program; a letter posted on Action Network calling for its end was sent by more than 3,600 people as of Thursday.
"I think the community is relatively outraged," said City Councilmember Phil Brock, who spearheaded the September 13 Council vote to send the letter to the County.
"There are people who are frustrated and upset, and we're impotent," Brock said.
Himmelrich's letter to County Health officials -- sent shortly after the Council gave the go-ahead -- recognized the City has "limited regulatory authority" over health issues.
"(R)ather than implement this program in our parks and open spaces, we seek your assistance in immediately moving this program to a service rich environment (preferably indoors)," the letter said.
In such an environment, "individuals in need of substance abuse, mental health, and other services can coordinate and work directly with service providers.”
On October 19, the City received a response from Gary Tsai, director of the County's Substance Abuse Prevention and Control.
"Experience working with PEH (people experiencing homelessness) has demonstrated that meeting individuals where they are, both figuratively and literally, is the best way to engage these individuals," Tsai wrote.
In contrast, "brick and mortar locations often present barriers to services given the need for proactive engagement approaches for this population."
According to Tsai, "Evidence suggests that restricting access to harm reduction services will only exacerbate the current overdose and homelessness crises."
He suggested the best way to address the issue was for the Venice Family Clinic to deliver the services from "one or more mobile vans" paid for by the City at a cost of $150,000 to $180,000 each.
The vans "would accomplish the (Council's) objectives by facilitating the relocation of overdose prevention services out of parks and open spaces," Tsai wrote.
"This approach would continue to allow for the ongoing flexible provision of services for people experiencing homelessness (PEH)."
Brock called the proposal "ridiculous."
We don't have the money to do it," he said. "The reality is they don't really care what we think. That's the frustrating part."
Brock said he has been trying to schedule a meeting with new County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, who represents Santa Monica.
"We're still trying to press to get a meeting," he said.
According to the County's October letter, the overdose prevention program in Santa Monica operates three hours a week on Fridays.
The C-3 Team that provides outreach services to the homeless serves about 100 individuals and distributes about 246 needles a month and 60 naloxone doses, which can reverse opioid overdoses, County officials said.
Locations where services are delivered include Reed Park, Tongva Park, Palisades Park, The California Incline, the 7-Eleven at 7th Street and Wilshire Boulevard and the Promenade.
"The location of services are based on the public health needs identified in conjunction with the C-3 Team," officials said.
Critics say the program enables addicts to continue using, draws more homeless to the city and makes parks less safe.
City officials say they are continuing to communicate with the County to find "new approaches."
"Santa Monica is committed to addressing the issue of homelessness in a holistic and compassionate manner," said City spokesperson Tati Simonian.
"It is our hope that we can work with the County to pursue new approaches to help those struggling with substance abuse," she said.
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