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Needle Hunters keep community safe by combing neighbourhoods for drug paraphernalia

For years there have been questions about whether Ottawa has a need for a supervised injection site.

As a Conservative Party Bill makes its way through the House of Commons that could make it more difficult for cities to get approval for a site, CFRA has been taking an in-depth look at the existing harm reduction programs.

That includes a look at the Needle Hunters program which consists of teams of people trained to safely remove used needles, crack pipes and condoms from public spaces.

It's chilly despite the morning sunshine on Caldwell Avenue near where Merivale and Carling intersect. The needle hunters say that sunshine is an asset, it helps them see the clear glass of discarded crack pipes and the orange of syringe caps.

They move at a quick pace, keeping a trained eye on the edges of flower beds and paths, the taller grass around fences and the sand at the edges of playgrounds.

In over an hour of hunting they only found one needle, but it is early spring and still cold and people aren't spending as much time outdoors using.

Doug has been doing this for three years, four hours a day four days a week scanning the area for three main items.

"Syringes, we collect condoms, and we collect crack pipes. Those are the ones we itemize but we also pick up wrappers from condoms, the little bottles of water that people use when they do mix their drugs," he said.

"We pick up all of the other stuff, we just don't mark it on our sheets," said Doug.

Those sheets are how they track the success of the program which is funded by the City of Ottawa through Ottawa Public Health.

In 2011 they retrieved 6,349 needles, 8,325 were collected in 2012 and needle hunters picked up 7,645 syringes last year.

That's on average 91 per cent of the needles that are found discarded in public places.

Others are kept out of public places using drop boxes. There are more than 40 across the city and are well-used as receptacles for syringes.

For example, in 2013 there were 824,110 needles recovered using drop boxes compared to the 7,645 picked up by needle hunters.

Doug said for him picking up the needles is more than just a steady job; it's exercise, a purpose and a way of giving back to the community and to Causeway, the employment agency which helped him find the work.

They help people with mental illness and disabilities get jobs when other people have passed them over.

Coordinator Bill Ross says their teams are made up of the right people.

"We've picked up some people that are just awesome that, you know, trying to fit in somewhere else they wouldn't be able to do it but here they're perfect," said Ross.

"I have about 40 people working for me in total. We always seem to have a few people coming and going but having that steady stream of people coming in through Causeway, we're able to do that and a lot of times for people this is just a stepping stone," he said.

"They've never had any kind of regular job before. This is a regular job it's not a pretend job, people actually have to be at a certain place at a certain time and we'll try and work with the person as much as possible and a lot of times people move on to more hours, full-time, those kinds of things," he said.

Ross said when he took over he re-evaluated the 16 routes the teams of two needle pickers walk twice each day and they've never stopped evolving.

"I mean, we'll add stuff or we'll take stuff away. People will call in that they're starting to find needles in that area and other places will dry up and so, sometimes it doesn't really have a rhyme or a reason, it's just the way it is. So, we'll focus on our attention more in one place that seems to be finding things and a lot of that information comes from the Needle Hunters," he said.

"A lot of the people that we use in the downtown area used to be addicts using themselves, so they have an idea of where things are and it's nice because those people aren't intimidated by people who are in the downtown area that other people might be intimidated by," Ross said.

He says while he's proud of the program's ability to make the community safer, he's most proud of the clients doing the needle hunter work.

"Because when I first came in I was like, 'Are we going to be able to make this work?' 'What's going on?' There were some problems when I took over but we reorganized, the City expanded the number of people we had out there," he said.

"What I'm really proud of is a lot of people that have come through that other people have written off ... some of my best workers have been with us seven, eight, nine, 10 years, and they're there doing their job every day and they do a good job," he said.

Ross said while much of the work goes on behind the scenes it isn't going unnoticed or unappreciated and when people do find out what the needle hunters are doing he says they're always very grateful.

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