It’s a warm summer morning and neighbors have gathered on Mesilla NE off Central, armed with plastic containers, grabbers, gloves and a love for the community they have worked hard to take back.
They’re on the hunt for used syringes that litter their parks, dirt lots, alleys and almost anywhere else the heroin epidemic has inflicted itself, which in America these days is just about everywhere.
In minutes, they find six syringes, tossed into the brush and gravel. After a half-hour and in a one-block radius, they collect 36.
Tuesday’s haul is smaller than these neighbors with the International District Healthy Communities Coalition have brought in over the past two months, but maybe, they say, it’s a sign that the work they are doing is having an effect.
Before Tuesday, they had collected 1,111 dirty needles – more than 500 of those on their first outing in May, when they tackled the dirt lots and alleys along Central and Charleston NE.
Like many communities, the International District in Southeast Albuquerque has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, but much of the debris from this drug scourge is also discarded here by the transient population that travels along Central and bleeds into the neighborhoods.
“Central is its own thing,” said Reyna Juarez, a coalition member and president of the South San Pedro Neighborhood Association, one of several communities that make up the International District. “You drive and up down Central sometimes, and you see prostitution, inebriated people stumbling around, homeless people. It gets into the community, but it’s not what this community is about. It’s not like you drive around our neighborhoods and see people shooting up everywhere.”
But the needles are everywhere, or so it seems.
“People are just concerned with general safety of having those needles out there,” said Enrique Cardiel, a longtime resident of the International District and an urban health extension coordinator with Bernalillo County. “They’re concerned with kids going to the park and getting stuck with needles or getting stuck themselves or pets running on them and getting stuck.”
That’s a sticking point – one cannot simply pluck used syringes like goat heads. Needles carry the risk of blood-borne diseases, such as hepatitis or HIV, or can expose whoever finds them to the remnants of heroin or other drugs.
“We started getting a lot of requests from neighbors wanting to go out and clean up their parks,” Juarez said. “But we thought we should learn how to do that safely.”
Which sounded like a perfect project for the International District Healthy Communities Coalition, a grass-roots group of neighborhood association members, service providers, elected officials and residents who seek to make what once was called the War Zone a healthier, safer place to live. Other projects the coalition has taken on include coordinating mobile farmers markets and brightening the night with more street lighting.
Cardiel, a facilitator of the coalition, said he was trained on how to collect syringes and teaches others how to do the same.
Last Thursday, about 20 volunteers showed up at Wilson Park to be trained on both syringe-collecting and how to administer naloxone, a drug used to revive people overdosing on opioids. Volunteers were then loaned nitrile gloves, grabbers and plastic sharps containers in which to place dirty needles before they fanned out in groups across six parks in the area.
One volunteer reported picking up 10 needles in about 15 minutes at Jack and Jill Park. In all, volunteers collected more than 200 needles in the parks that evening.
Cardiel estimates that it costs the city about $70 each time it has to respond to a call from a citizen about finding a used syringe that needs to be removed. By training neighbors to safely remove and store syringes for disposal, that’s $80,290 in savings to local government when you consider that 1,147 needles have been removed.
But it’s more than cost-cutting that brings out these neighbors to hunt for dirty needles.
“It’s difficult when I hear people still call this place the War Zone,” Juarez said. “I live here. I hear the sirens and gunshots at night, but I also hear the neighbors greeting each other. It’s a culturally rich neighborhood. There’s a lot going on here. This community has worked hard to make our neighborhoods safe and beautiful.”
The day after the volunteers hunted for syringes on Mesilla NE, the street was transformed into a crafts fair put on by the New Mexico Women’s Global Pathways in celebration of World Refugee Day. It was another part of the culture and the color the community celebrates, another part worth fighting for.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.