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Battling opioid epidemic: Countywide 'Syringe Exchange Program' raises concerns in Lompoc

Battling opioid epidemic: Countywide 'Syringe Exchange Program' raises concerns in Lompoc

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Despite chilly early December temperatures and a steady rainfall, 42-year-old Chasta Roman was in an upbeat mood as she clutched a small paper bag and walked with a friend along an eastern Lompoc sidewalk.

Roman, an admitted intravenous drug user, had braved those elements on this particular night for the particular purpose of acquiring the contents of the bag gripped by her left hand: about a dozen new, clean syringes that she acknowledged she would soon begin using to inject herself with narcotics.

“It’s very much helpful,” Roman said of having the sterile syringes. “Being able to get clean needles helps me not get abscesses. Those are not awesome. It’s a lot better having these clean needles.”

The source of the syringes was a van and curbside table that had been set up by the Santa Barbara-based Pacific Pride Foundation about 30 feet south of where Roman had stopped to talk. She was able to get the devices through the organization’s Syringe Exchange Program, which is one of several services offered by the foundation in what it says is an effort to save lives and improve health outcomes for a particularly vulnerable population in Santa Barbara County.

Several Lompoc residents who don’t utilize the services, however, have raised issues with aspects of the Syringe Exchange Program, with some accusing it of promoting drug use and/or endangering the local community. At a recent public forum, at least a few Lompoc residents called for more oversight by the city on how and where Pacific Pride Foundation can operate within Lompoc’s borders.

Colette Schabram, the executive director of Pacific Pride Foundation, said recently that she hadn’t personally heard those complaints or accusations, but she stressed that her organization is aiming to help solve what is a nationwide problem.

“I think it’s important for people to know that there is a national opioid epidemic going on and that means that we have to do all we can as a community to help solve the problem,” she said. “The Syringe Exchange (Program) and our overdose prevention programs are part of the solution and not the problem.”

Serving a purpose

The Pacific Pride Foundation, according to its website at pacificpridefoundation.org, began in 1976 as the Western Addiction Services Program, a drug and alcohol abuse counseling and referral center for gay men and lesbians.

The name was changed to Pacific Pride Foundation in 1994 and the organization expanded over time to encompass a wide range of services for people living with HIV/AIDS and those within the LGBTQ+ community in Santa Barbara County and throughout the Central Coast.

Through the Syringe Exchange Program, which has been in operation for at least the past decade, the foundation states that it offers sterile syringes on a one-to-one exchange to people who turn in used syringes. In addition to syringes, clients can also receive health counseling, free and anonymous testing for HIV and Hepatitis C, and receive Naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose.

The program is offered one day per week in Santa Barbara, Lompoc and Santa Maria.

To make it as convenient as possible for clients, services are offered out of the foundation’s Health Utility Vehicle in Lompoc and Santa Barbara.

In Lompoc, the vehicle parks near the corner of Oak Avenue and G Street from 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays. It parks near a Santa Barbara intersection on Wednesday evenings and the services are offered out of a Pacific Pride Foundation office at 123 S. College Drive in Santa Maria on Thursday evenings.

“This is all about harm reduction for us — meeting the clients where they are and then encouraging them and giving them tools and resources to make healthier decisions,” Schabram said.

During the 2017-18 fiscal year, according to Schabram, the foundation offered services to 323 unique clients countywide.

Schabram said the foundation has had many clients go through recovery and return to share their success stories. Others, she said, have shared other issues they face, such as domestic violence, and Pacific Pride Foundation has helped direct those people to other appropriate agencies for assistance.

“It’s a touch-point for a marginalized community, for sure, and it also helps them with a variety of issues,” Schabram said.

Courting controversy

During an Oct. 17 meeting of the Lompoc Public Safety Commission, several residents raised concerns about Pacific Pride Foundation and its syringe program.

One man said he picked up his son from a bus stop near where the program operates in Lompoc and was shocked to see that the Health Utility Vehicle was parked there as children were getting off the bus. Having it there at that time, he said, was endangering those children by potentially exposing them to dangerous needles and the clientele that the service attracts.

Others at the meeting said they felt like the program was leading to more used needles being dumped in various locations throughout Lompoc — “There’s a lot of them; there’s more than there should be,” Police Chief Pat Walsh said at the meeting, referring to discarded needles around town — and accused Pacific Pride Foundation of not adhering to its own policy of offering the syringes on a one-to-one exchange.

It was suggested by some at the meeting that the city should force the vehicle to operate in a safer location, such as near the plaza that contains City Hall and the Lompoc Police Department headquarters.

Both Walsh and City Manager Jim Throop acknowledged at that meeting that there was little they could do as far as forcing the organization, which has approval from the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to operate, to move to a specific location. Walsh noted that there was very little likelihood of it moving to the area near City Hall, in particular, because of its proximity to the police and county probation offices, which would likely scare off would-be clients.

Schabram, after being told of the concerns raised at that Oct. 17 meeting, said the bus stop issue was a one-time occurrence that only happened because the Health Utility Vehicle was serviced that same day and was taken to the Lompoc location at an earlier-than-usual time. She noted that it typically arrives well after any bus drop-offs.

As for the choice of location to operate, she said that a lot of research went into settling on that particular area.

“We choose the location based on where there’s heightened activity of clients who might need the service," she said. "The way we identify that is by having community conversations with medical providers, other community nonprofits, health organizations, and even some of our clients from other parts of our communities to identify certain spots."

In regards to the suggestion that the program is causing a rise in discarded syringes, at least one person involved in the program said that the opposite effect is more likely true.

“It’s not like we’re just giving out needles to everyone,” Ogui Gonzalez-Villa, a community education associate with Pacific Pride Foundation, said while helping coordinate the program in Lompoc.

“It’s a one-for-one exchange and, if anything, we actually encourage people to pick up needles, because sometimes when someone comes and they don’t have any needles to give, we encourage them to pick up needles they find and give them to us so we can dispose of them and give them clean needles.”

Working together

The issues that were raised in Lompoc don’t seem to have been brought forward in other communities served by Pacific Pride Foundation.

Schabram said she hadn’t fielded any concerns outside of the isolated incident involving the bus stop in Lompoc, and Santa Maria City Manager Jason Stilwell said this past week that his office hadn’t received any comments, questions or concerns related to the Syringe Exchange Program, or any other service offered by the foundation, in Santa Maria.

Those associated with Pacific Pride Foundation said they hope that critics will be able to see the benefits of the services. The distribution of Naloxone, they say, is one example that has directly saved lives.

Nick Farley, a volunteer with Pacific Pride Foundation, has been interviewing clients as part of his research toward a sociology degree at UC Santa Barbara. Although he hadn’t yet compiled his data in early December, he said that he had noticed a common theme in many of those interviews.

“Pretty much anyone you talk to has a friend or family member who's died, and pretty much everyone you talk to has recently been present at an overdose and either called 911 or resuscitated [the victim] using Narcan (a brand of Naloxone) or some other means,” Farley said.

“Sure, there’s a place that needles come from, but also there’s larger systemic problems that involve the heroin epidemic in Lompoc,” he added. “You can pick at all the symptoms — it’s just way more complicated than any single factor.”

Throop, the Lompoc city manager, said that he planned to invite Pacific Pride Foundation representatives to give a presentation to the Lompoc City Council to help educate the public about its services.

Schabram said she was amenable to any such outreach and encouraged people with concerns to contact the organization directly.

“Sometimes, if people don’t know the full scope of the program, they might make assumptions, so I’d really encourage people to understand the full scope of what we’re doing; not just pinpoint something and jump to conclusions, because there’s a lot of services and wraparound solutions that we’re trying to address here,” she said.

Meanwhile, Roman, a regular client of the exchange program, said she is thankful for the service.

“If they weren’t here,” she said of Pacific Pride Foundation, “everybody would be sharing needles. Some people don’t care, so they’d be sharing.”

She acknowledged, however, that she can see why some people don’t want the program around.

“I understand some people don’t like it being here because of the fact that we’re drug users,” she said, “but at least we’re being clean about it, you know what I mean?”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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Reporter

Willis Jacobson covers news and other issues, primarily those that affect the Lompoc Valley and Vandenberg Air Force Base for the Lompoc Record. He is a graduate of The University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications.

Related to this story

A new Lompoc Pride Alliance, made up of LGBTQ+ individuals and allies, was recently formed with the stated goal of “working together to help make Lompoc a safer and more welcoming city for the LGBTQ+ community through outreach, resources, support and advocacy.” The organization was created through a partnership between the Lompoc Valley Democratic Club (LVDC) and the Valley of the Flowers United Church of Christ, which bills itself as being “open and affirming” in welcoming gay and lesbian members.

  • Updated

The Lompoc City Council spent nearly an hour Tuesday night discussing potential ways to manage the mobile syringe exchange program that has been offered in the city since 2016 by the Pacific Pride Foundation. Some community members have accused the organization of promoting drug use and blamed the controversial syringe exchange program for a proliferation of used needles being discarded in Lompoc’s streets, alleys and parks.

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