SAPD COMMUNITY ROOM — City officials are preparing to oppose the Harm Reduction Institute’s (HRI) plans to launch a needle-exchange program in Santa Ana, following the organization’s second attempt to secure approval from the California Department of Public Health (CPDH).

Needle-exchange programs aren't new to Santa Ana, but the opposition stance appears to be growing. As the Orange County Register reported years ago, similar programs have had their permits revoked or had courts rule against them.

In 2023, HRI submitted an application that was approved by the CDPH in August. However, following significant opposition from local officials and residents, they rescinded their clearance for the program.

The City claimed victory.

Then, in December, HRI submitted another application, proposing a similar mobile needle-exchange program to their initial one. This program would involve the nonprofit delivering needles to homes, RVs, and other non-traditional living spaces.

Needle-exchange programs could potentially reduce transmission levels of hepatitis and HIV.

Carol Newark, Executive Director of Harm Reduction Institute, stated in a response that the nonprofit would deliver clean needles two days a week and spend the other three days collecting used needles from the residences.

“Over half of HRI’s operational time will be dedicated to taking used syringes from participants and disposing of them safely and properly,” said Newark. “HRI will also do syringe litter sweeps throughout the city, and will operate a hotline where residents can report syringe litter.”

At a community meeting held on Saturday at Santa Ana police headquarters, Mayor Amezcua was joined by Councilmembers Bacerra and Penaloza to lead the discussion, along with prominent elected officials including Assemblymember Avelino Valencia (D-CA, 68) and Congressmember Lou Correa (D-CA, 46). Presidents and representatives from over a dozen neighborhood associations were also in attendance.

“We’re public enemy number one,” said Penaloza. He added that Newark had tweeted about the opposition, stating that their nonprofit would be "more relentless than our enemies."

Commander Roland Andrade delivered a brief presentation outlining the key issues that neighborhood association leaders found problematic.

Commander Roland Andrade delivering a presentation on Harm Reduction Institute's second application status and where the City stands. (Daniel Diaz/El Santanero)

Andrade pointed out that HRI's application misrepresented data regarding HIV diagnoses to potentially make the situation look worse than what it seemed. According to the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA) 2022 HIV report, 6.6% of 259 people, or 17 individuals, were diagnosed with HIV due to injection drug use, which equates to 0.05% of the Santa Ana population.

In contrast, the OCHCA reported that 46 individuals from Santa Ana were diagnosed with HIV in 2022.

“HRI has not ballooned any numbers, we are going off of the 2022 HIV data from the OCHCA, which lists Santa Ana as the city with the highest rate of HIV transmission in the county,” said Newark in response to the City’s accusal of data misuse.

In HRI's application, they estimate to distribute 300,000 syringes a year to serve 500 participants, but strive to collect 180,000. They acknowledge some participants turn in their needles to other official collection systems.

Local leaders gave their two cents.

Congressman Lou Correa (D-CA, 46) talking with neighborhood association leaders, including, at right, Rory Kirk of Park Santiago. (Daniel Diaz/El Santanero)

“We need to focus on protecting the kids, we can’t just wait on government officials to pick them up,” said Rory Kirk, Park Santiago Neighborhood Association President.

Assemblymember Avelino Valencia (D-CA, 68) speaking with attendees, including, at center, Danny Vega, Police Oversight Commissioner. (Daniel Diaz/El Santanero)

Valencia also agreed with residents’ proposals to relocate or reformat the program all together, saying it is a possible avenue at a state level.

“It’s got to be a win-win situation,” said Correa. He recognized the purpose of the program but also highlighted the potential health risks posed by discarded needles can do to the community at large.

Penaloza supports the program's objective to reduce HIV and hepatitis levels in Orange County, which are relatively low both countywide and citywide. However, he is deeply troubled by the images of needles in libraries and playgrounds. “My main concern is the residents and their health," he said, expressing concern that the program, while serving a small population, might exacerbate issues related to discarded syringes.

“We have to take charge, we have to be the voices,” said Amezcua. She added that her main concern was and has always been the quality of life for the constituents of Santa Ana.

And residents heard her call. An online petition was made in opposition to the program. As of press, it has received nearly 1,000 signatures.

In order for HRI’s application to be approved this time, it requires mutual consultation with local officials and authorities.

“Advocates of harm reduction in Santa Ana have always been willing to listen to and adapt programs based on feedback from local officials and residents,” said Newark.

The City Council will discuss Item 27 during their Apr. 16 meeting in a resolution to oppose HRI’s proposal for a needle-exchange program.