Stray needles have become a symptom and a symbol of the nationwide opioid crisis. Recovering addicts spent days cleaning nine tons of garbage and thousands of heroin needles from their former home, a patch of woods behind a Home Depot south of Everett.
Robert Smiley stayed in the camp years ago, when he abused alcohol and smoked crack. He dumped a bucket of 7,624 needles onto a tarp Monday, to show how many carpeted the ground days ago.
“All I know is this doesn’t need to be your neighborhood anymore,” Smiley said to an audience of volunteers, as they celebrated the progress of their cleanup at a barbecue Monday.
Smiley, 53, leads the Hand Up Project, a nonprofit that seeks to get people off the streets, into detox and into sober housing. Many of the volunteers are recovering addicts who lived in the camp in the past. Now they want to make things right, in a neighborhood plagued by drugs and related crime. They hauled out dirty mattresses, empty beer cans and mounds of plastic bottles. Thick evergreen branches were trimmed, bringing light into the timbered patch off Avondale Road.
“It’s like night and day,” said Julie Londo, who has owned the land for about 30 years.
The work is not done. Volunteers plan to remove more shattered glass, garbage and even more needles in the coming weeks.
Former residents of the camp wandered the roads off Highway 99 during the cleanup. Smiley offered help to many of them. Some were willing to take it. Three agreed to go into detox, and nine more will be starting treatment, according to the project. On Monday, a man with no shoes sauntered into the camp while volunteers worked. He asked a reporter if he could buy dope. Smiley gave him a pair of size 10 shoes.
“I can understand what you’ve been going through,” Smiley told him. “If you want help, and you want this to stop, we can help you. But you just can’t be here anymore. They’re going to start arresting you.”
In Everett and nationwide, the opioid crisis has woven a complex web of public health hazards: addiction, infectious disease and a startling spike in overdoses. Scattered beside dirty tinfoil at the Avondale camp, some needles still held coagulated blood. Diseases, including hepatitis C, can live outside of the human body for months.
The Snohomish County Health District is helping to dispose of the needles from the cleanup, one part of an ongoing effort to keep dirty syringes off the streets. Last month, the health district offered free needle cleanup kits to the public. The first batch of 50 was snatched up in days. Since then a total of 400 have been given out, said Heather Thomas, spokeswoman for the health district.
Snohomish County’s nonprofit needle exchange program gives out one clean syringe for each dirty syringe that people bring in. By the end of the year they’re on pace to collect 2 million, and to give out 2 million more.