Trash collectors in Deering Oaks Park in downtown Portland, Maine, often come across trash too dangerous to pick up: used needles and syringes, left behind by drug users.
“We find them pretty much every time we come down here,” said Travis Jarrelo, as he cleaned around the park Tuesday afternoon.
“We found six [needles] the other day, in just one 45 minute trip,” said collector Tommy Greene.
Portland City officials have been receiving complaints about the needles, and have stepped up police patrols in the area.
They have also upgraded trash cans in three parks with “Sharp Secure” boxes, specially made for handling used injection devices. The boxes have been installed in Deering Oaks park, Harbor View, and Peppermint Park.
“They’re considered kind of ‘hot spots,’” said city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.
Each box can hold up to 20 needles, and a trained professional will come by to clean them out once a week.
“It’s a public safety issue and a public health crisis,” said Grondin, “and this is one way we’re trying to see if it works.”
Since the boxes were installed two weeks ago, only one needle has been discarded in one of the boxes.
Some park users and parents say they don’t think the program will be effective, because someone high on heroin may not have the wherewithal to safely dispose of a needle.
“They’re just going to come here more because they know they can dispose of their needles here,” said Kiyonah Wilkinson, who brought her daughter to the playground at Deering Oaks Park Tuesday.
At Peppermint Park, mother Kate Nelson worried children will be able to reach inside the top of the box, and still have access to infected needles.
“Every kid I know would stick their finger in there,” she said.
Addiction councilor Chris Coose does not think the presence of the boxes will encourage anyone to use in a specific place.
“I wouldn’t be afraid of [the heroin problem] growing,” said Coose. “It’s going to grow, whether people are using it in their high rise condominium, or in the park.”
Coose, who works with drug users in his Top of the Hill Counseling in Portland, said it’s more of a “triage” approach to the opioid addiction crisis, but added it’s a “public acknowledgement of what we’re up against.”
Grondin said she is not aware of other communities in Maine that have tried the secure box approach, but knows other communities are watching the success of the Portland program.