On a grey September morning, as most of the city begins its work day, I sit in the lobby of the Middlesex London Health Unit, laden with camera gear, awaiting Lynn Vander Vloet of the Emergency Management Department.

It’s a day I’ve been looking forward to for some time…

I’m about to head out with the needle recovery team.

From left to right, Peggy Frew, Jim Borrett, Brad Keeler and Lynn Vander Vloet.
The needle recovery team. From left to right, Peggy Frew, Jim Borrett, Brad Keeler and Lynn Vander Vloet.

My goal – to illustrate both the role of volunteers in handling the fallout of an opioid crisis, and to get some footage of the crew in action. After some brief introductions, we head out to the parking lot to get equipped for the day’s task – cleaning up used needles and other injection paraphernalia.

It’s a modest set-up, far from the quarantine suits you may expect.

Sensible shoes, long pants, gloves.

The tools of the trade are nothing more than a grabber tool, a pair of tongs, and two plastic containers in a wire basket – one for sharps, which is disposed of at the end of each day, and another for non-sharps (swabs, cookers, saline containers, etc.), which is disinfected after every outing.

Retirement plans

All the volunteers are seniors. On this day, Peggy Frew is heading out for the very first time after undertaking months-long training at the Health Unit. She joined the team because she knew some of the people involved and wanted a volunteer opportunity that makes a difference in the community. No Meals on Wheels for her, I think.

If she’s nervous, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she listens to Lynn and the experienced team members, asks questions, and sets to work.

No sooner do we leave the health unit than we find the first few discarded syringes lying in the bushes around the parking lot. Prior to picking them up, Jim Borrett lets me get some close up shots. I didn’t realize that I would have as many opportunities as I wanted and more to do the same as the morning progressed.

Hidden in plain sight

Across the parking lot, on the patio overlooking the Forks of the Thames, a couple people sit on cardboard mats. They see the team at work and slowly walk away, looking right through us.

Even though the occupants are gone, it still feels like we’ve entered someone’s home.

There are some sharps scattered in and around the personal effects – everything from household decorations to old clothes. Someone was courteous enough to put most of their waste in a wicker basket nearby.

Bits of carpet and cardboard left behind by the occupants of the patio overlooking the park.
Bits of carpet and cardboard left behind by the occupants of the patio overlooking the park.

The basket proves to be something of a treasure trove of injection materials, and Jim sorts through with his grabber and takes away everything that relates to the task at hand. Meanwhile, there is a mailbox-sized needle disposal bin literally eight feet below us, outside the public washrooms.

Once that site is cleared of needles, we make our way across the park to the river’s edge. There are more sharps and paraphernalia tucked away under bushes, behind rocks, and a few out in the open.

I admit, I was surprised at just how many items were collected within the first 50 metres.

Abandoned camps

Closer to the Thames, on the river side of the path, it’s far easier to tell where people are shooting up. A few well-worn spots showed signs of use by multiple people. Even making our way down the hill toward what I can only call an injection encampment, volunteers are finding syringes on the slope – most likely tossed into the bushes from the path above.

An all too common sight along London's river paths.
An all too common sight along London’s river paths.

When we reach the river’s edge, what would normally be a beautiful vista on a rock outcropping is instead a biohazardous hunting grounds. All the alcohol swabs, bloodied bandages, needle tips, syringes, saline tubes, cookers, crack pipes and dime bags keep us looking down rather than enjoy the view.

There are other campsites around the river, but the team is first and foremost respectful of their occupants. These are people in tough times. No need to disturb them unnecessarily.

These are real people

Topside, on the wide lawn south of the health unit, there is a large patch of garbage strewn about.

Brad, however, doesn’t see it that way. These are a fellow human’s possessions.

As he flips over the personal effects, including a notebook and some shirts, he puts them back exactly where he finds them. It’s not his role to judge or to clean up the mess – he’s only looking for sharps and other injection-related items, of which there are a few.

Perhaps the most humanizing item in the bunch is a bag of dog food. Despite the addiction, despite the homelessness, someone has made sure their pet is getting fed.

It’s sad, and touching, and incredibly humbling.

Familiar sights

As we make our way below the bridges, the number of needles seems to drop off. However, another injection site is found beneath the trusses up top. This one again has garbage bags full of possessions left haphazardly lying around. However, this site is more organized than the ones at the river’s edge. Needles stick out of the dirt, sharp side down, making them less harmful and easier to pick up.

I have to remind myself that these volunteers who are climbing up embankments, down slopes, and in and under the bridge trusses, are seniors.

You don't need to venture far to see there is an opioid crisis in London.
You don’t need to venture far to see there is an opioid crisis in London.

Lynn and Peggy duck and manouever beneath the bridge trusses, providing an extra set of eyes up top. Jim scours the bushes below. Brad makes his way up and immediately spots a cache of needle tips. While picking up discarded plungers, he notes that people reuse the barrels and tips of syringes – the latter until they become too dull for use.

In a city where cases of HIV and Hepatitis dwarf the provincial average, it’s easy to see why this poses a drastic health problem. Still, the volunteers – and I can’t stress that word enough – are unfazed.

Perspective

Despite seeking out some of the most harmful items imaginable, Brad half-jokingly suggests cyclists are the biggest danger on the job. It’s easy to understand why. When a team member is staring at the ground surrounding the bike path, it’s hard to notice an approaching cyclist.

A man walking his dog greets the team as they pass under a bridge. The dog starts sniffing uncomfortably close to a syringe I spot. The ‘observer’ in me is gone, as I pet the dog and keep it from what lies on the ground.

In fact, I already failed in my role as I point out band-aids, needles and other items to nearby team members. It is strangely satisfying to find these items, knowing they will be disposed of properly.

For a few moments, I forget that come tomorrow, much of this work will be undone. New needles will take their place along the path. New injection supplies will pile up, or blow about in the autumn wind.

Sharps in one side, everything else in the other.
Sharps in one side, everything else in the other.

By the time I have my footage and am ready to leave, the team has recovered 50 sharps, in addition to hundreds of other pieces of drug paraphernalia. All this within 500 metres of their starting point. There are 17 collection zones in the city, so I can only imagine how many other needles are being picked up at any given moment and worse.

How many are still undiscovered or out of reach?

My work is over, but for these volunteers, the hiatus is only temporary.

They will be out again.

And again.

And again.

Noone will thank them.

Most people don’t even know they exist. And that’s okay.

Meanwhile, the truly invisible people – the ones who desperately need help and attention – can only be traced by the needles they leave behind.

Watch the video here.

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