Last week city officials in Sanford suspended a syringe exchange program and cleaned up a homeless encampment at Heritage Crossing near Weaver Drive, which local business owners said was making them feel unsafe and causing their businesses to suffer.
The Maine Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (MECDC) partners with several nonprofit organizations that run “Syringe Service Programs” throughout the state, which provide sterile syringes to people in exchange for dirty ones in an effort to reduce disease and encourage the safe disposal of sharps.
The nonprofit in charge of the needle exchange program in Sanford is Maine Access Points (MAP).
Up until last week, MAP ran a syringe exchange stand on Tuesdays and Fridays outside of an old mill building at Heritage Crossing and Weaver Drive.
At a July 18 Sanford city council meeting, the owner and employees of a hair salon near where the syringe exchange stand was set up spoke about the harm the stand was doing to their business.
Lisa DeHaven, a stylist working at Rand & Co. House of Beauty, said that the nearby homeless encampment and needle exchange is causing the business to lose clients.
“We have all the homeless down there in the woods, and they also do the needle exchange right at the base of our parking lot,” DeHaven said.
“I know you probably need that in town, but you don’t need that at the base of our business,” she said. “What it does is it brings in — all these drug addicts come, Tuesdays, Thursdays and sometimes Friday, they block our parking lot, they come into our building, they shoot up in our bathrooms, they scare our clients, we’re losing business.”
“It’s traumatizing, it’s horrifying down there” DeHaven added, saying that other workers are scared to leave the salon at night.
Salon owner Emily Rand said that she feels bad for the homeless and the addicts, but she also feels bad for her girls that work at the salon.
“I try to be nice, I have family members in programs. I have a family member in jail with addiction, I’m not — I feel bad for these people too, but I feel bad for my girls,” Rand said.
“I go to the salon every morning an hour early to look under the stairs, look in the bathroom, call dispatch from the parking lot, tell them there’s people here,” she said.
Will Hurley, the York County director of harm reduction from Maine Access Points also spoke at the July 18 city council meeting to respond to the concerns of the Sanford business owners.
Maine Access Points is a taxpayer-funded non-profit that was created in 2019. It received nearly $500,000 in grants in 2020 and 2021, according to public tax documents.
According to a press release from MaineHealth, the the hospital received a $1.2 million grant from the federal government for “overdose prevention,” part of which went to Maine Access Points.
“I just want to say I’m not immune to some of the complaints of the small business community,” Hurley said. “I’m sorry that your business has been suffering, I think we all have to deal collectively with issues in our community.”
“The work that we do as a syringe exchange program is really just a small part of the care that our community needs,” he said.
Hurley said that data shows that syringe exchange programs do not create more syringe litter, and that they actually lead to less syringe litter.
“Often there are calls for more punishment — you cannot arrest your way out of these problems. Arresting people for using drugs or being homeless does not work,” Hurley said.
According to state report on the needle exchange program published in 2023, Maine Access Points’ Sanford location has serviced 210 people from Nov. 2021 to Oct. 2022, providing those individuals a total of 169,350 needles — more than 800 per person.
According to the report, only seven of those individuals were referred for mental health services.
Statewide, nearly 7,000 individuals use the needle exchange program, which handed out 2.3 million needles during the same time period. The same facilities provided 96 HIV tests and 891 doses of naloxone, an overdose reversal drug.
Sanford City Manager Steven Buck said that the city is looking to move the MAP syringe exchange program into a brick-and-mortar location, as the program has created a secondary public health concern due to discarded needles.
“During COVID, there was a change in how that program was administered,” Buck said. “My opinion in reading that statutes and my observation is it’s no longer a needle exchange program, it’s a program that passes out needles and all of the other apparatus needed to take out these particular drugs under the pretense that its a public health coverage.”
“The issue that I have is that the program seeks to address public health in one area but creates public health difficulties in many other areas,” Buck explained. “Large quantities of needles are being utilized for that purpose and being inappropriately discarded along public trails, public areas, playgrounds.”
In March of 2020, Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order temporarily suspending the 1-to-1 needle exchange limit — meaning that the syringe exchange programs could essentially hand out free hypodermic needles to addicts.
The 2022 Syringe Service Programs in Maine Annual Report done by MECDC and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services shows a large increase in the number of syringes distributed starting in 2020.
2020 is also the first year that the number of needles distributed outnumbered the number of needles collected.
This gap widened in 2021, but returned to almost even in 2022 — which might have been due to the passage of LD 1909 in March of 2022, which allowed MECDC to limit the number of hypodermic needles provided by the exchange programs.
Current state rules allow for needle distribution programs to give a person up to 100 new needles, even if they have no used syringes to exchange.
Last Monday, Bangor city councilors unanimously approved almost $29,000 in funding for the Bangor Health Equity Alliance so that the nonprofit can hire a “syringe waste specialist” — a needle collector.
The Health Equity Alliance runs a syringe exchange program in Bangor — and is now looking to hire a part-time employee to pick up the needles which they distributed to individuals with substance abuse disorders.
In an interview Friday, Sen. Matt Harrington (R-York), said that before the city’s clean up effort last week, piles of trash and the homeless encampment lined the street on Weaver Drive, and that the salon would have to call the police about overdoses and deaths in their parking lot.
“At what point does their public health trump the regular people in Sanford who aren’t using the [syringe exchange] service but are constantly coming up with these needles? They were everywhere last week” Sen. Harrington said.
“Let’s at least have services, so instead of just having him down here distributing needles, how about we have Sanford Housing Authority,” Harrington said.
“Sanford Police Department has an entire mental health unit — let’s have them down here, and all collaboratively working with these folks to get them off the street, get them into treatment, instead of just giving them needles,” he added.
Although the police have programs in place, guidance from Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey issued in February of 2022 made citations and arrests being a “last resort” for certain “low-level” infractions.
These infractions include certain instances of criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, public urination, drug possession and public drinking.
“These various charges you’re not supposed to arrest for. These are the most common charges that you deal with, with a homeless person,” Harrington said.
“You’re completely handcuffing law enforcement,” he said.
“I have to guess that their idea is you’re just exacerbating the problem by arresting them on these — I guess what they’re considering to be — de minimis offenses,” the Senator said. “I don’t think possession of drugs is a de minimis offense.”
Sen. Harrington, who has worked in public safety for two decades as a police officer, firefighter, and EMT, said that officers would typically use their discretion when deciding whether or not to arrest someone on these charges.
More often than not, Harrington said, an officer would try to help that person get to a shelter, to give them a ride to a friend’s house, or to get into a program — but this guidance from the Attorney General prevents them from getting to that point.
When speaking with Harrington last Friday following the clean up, there were no needles on the ground outside of the mill building, and a drastically lower amount of trash in the woods next to Heritage Crossing than the previous week.
Harrington said that Sanford’s decision to suspend the syringe exchange program should be looked to as an example by other Maine cities struggling with homeless encampments and needle littering.