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In praise of Rig Diggers

 Victoria Street Newz (Canada) 11 June 2019

(Originally published: 07/2009) Heading in to work last Wednesday, I noticed that the driver in front of me was indulging in a scrumptious nicotine stick. Drag. Puff. Hold. Drag. Puff. Hold. Drag. Puff. FLICK. The cigarette butt was launched out of the car window, toppling to the asphalt below. When I eventually parked my car and was strolling down the sidewalk, I noticed schools of spent butts all along the curb. Disgusting! On my way home from work, I passed Harm Reduction Victoria’s guerrilla needle exchange. Although I have heard some fussing about dirty needles being discovered in yards, parks and such, I did not see any around the guerrilla exchange. Delightful! Emily Beinhauer pays homage to the ‘AVI and SOLID rig dig’ teams who not only ensure Victoria’s streets are free of IV needles, but who also try to help people coming off the streets. (1322 words) - By Emily Beinhauer

VICTORIA, Canada - Heading in to work last Wednesday, I noticed that the driver in front of me was indulging in a scrumptious nicotine stick. Drag. Puff. Hold. Drag. Puff. Hold. Drag. Puff. FLICK. The cigarette butt was launched out of the car window, toppling to the asphalt below. I imagined the sound of a bowling ball striking all ten pins. When I eventually parked my car and was strolling down the sidewalk, I noticed schools of spent butts all along the curb. Disgusting.

On my way home from work, I passed Harm Reduction Victoria's guerrilla needle exchange, a table beneath the stubby sequoia at Vancouver St. and Pandora Ave. Although I have heard some fussing about dirty needles being discovered in yards, parks and such, I did not see any along Pandora, certainly not around the guerrilla exchange. Delightful.

How come there are so many used cigarettes but few used needles along the city's curbs? Sure, there are more smokers than IV drug users in Victoria, but what else?

It probably has a lot to do with the fact that society sees used needles as a sign that there is something terribly wrong. IV drugs are taboo. Used needles can carry disease and for the health of our community, they must be picked up as often as possible. The same statement does not apply as well to cigarettes, which are legal. Butts can also carry disease, but they are not as potent a symbol for societal ills as a discarded syringe. As a result, syringe recovery is carried out daily in Victoria and there are several organizations that work to keep dirty needles off of public and private land.

Teams of folks who go out to search for and retrieve used needles are deployed by AIDS Vancouver Island (AVI) and by the Society of Living Intravenous Drug Users (SOLID). Two AVI rig-dig teams go out weekday mornings from 9:30 to 11:30 am and are often made up of one current or former member of the IV drug using community, who is often paired with two volunteers, usually students.

Andrea Langlois, communications coordinator at AVI, says that the shifts are filled extremely reliably, which shows that folks value their role in giving back to the community. (Please note that all rig-dig positions are currently filled, but more volunteers are welcome!)

The SOLID rig-dig team, made up of two SOLID members, goes out from 7:00 to 9:00 am every day and has a larger radius, travelling by bus to areas like Esquimalt, Topaz, Beacon Hill and Rock Bay. Randy Beddow, who rig-digs for SOLID five days a week, said that SOLID rig-diggers are really outreach teams because they also try to talk to folks and direct them to social and health care services, provide advice and support, as well as give out clean syringes, and other harm reduction supplies. They don't just search for used needles, they also try to get people off the streets.

Members of the IV drug using community who are rig diggers for AVI or SOLID receive a twenty dollar honorarium for their work and for their knowledge of dirty syringe "hotspots" and their ability to communicate with their peers on the street about health and social issues, safety and where to find new "hotspots."

The Victoria AIDS Resource and Community Services Society (VARCS), the City of Victoria, the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA), and many other citizens also work to ensure that used needles are cleaned up in the city. VARCS will pick up used syringes if called.  The City manages the yellow syringe drop boxes that are scattered around town (across from Street Link, Bastion Square, by the Whale Wall, by Our Place and in the 700 block of Fort St.) and employs people who clean up the streets, which includes syringe recovery.

The City of Victoria also provides some funding to AVI , in the form of a Special Projects Grant, so that the rig-dig program is well equipped and able to pay its diggers. The DVBA organizes a Clean Team, comprised of four youth who have been hired with the assistance of the Federal Government's Skills Link Program for challenged and marginalized youth, who pick up used needles and remove graffiti. Operating in pairs, the Clean Team is on duty from 7 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. every weekday, with extended hours during summer months. All of these organizations convene every six months, under the banner: Syringe Recovery Working Group. The meetings provide a valuable opportunity for folks to share information about the locations of "hotspots" and to optimize their syringe recovery routes.

That is fantastic information, but what's it like to go out on a rig-dig?

Well, imagine this: AVI had me go out with Rick. After a brief intro, I grabbed a bucket and a pair of tongs and was out the door. Rick was not messing around and it was all business. At a cheetah-like pace, he wove me around The Church of St. John the Divine and First Metropolitan United Church, around St. Andrew's Elementary School, through a sea of parking lots between Pandora and View, along parts of Quadra, Yates, Vancouver, Pandora, Blanshard and Cormorant.

It was hard to keep up and there was a lot of ground to cover. My eyes began to cross and I probably would have walked into traffic a few times if Rick wasn't there to look out for me. The needles are often hidden under bushes or are pushed into the dirt, so you have to be good at looking.

Rick says that some folks bring their used ones to him as he walks by, or they tell him where to pick up their used ones, information not given to just anyone. "You have to be known by the street community to be told info like that, Rick told me as he paced briskly along the grassy boulevard in the centre of Pandora. You have to earn that.

At the end of the dig, the number of recovered needles was tallied and our names were recorded in order to keep statistical information up to date. It went by fast.

With the hullabaloo going on about needle exchanges and the "no-service" zone around St. Andrew's Elementary, safe consumption sites and increased police presence, the fact that syringe pick-up is happening every day in our city is amazing.

It is also amazing that picking up used needles is more than just a job to the rig-diggers at AVI and SOLID.

Go talk to a rig-digger, like Wolf, and he will tell you that he does it to, "give back to the community." Rick told me rig-digging "keeps [him] in line," meaning it reminds him why he doesn't use anymore and helps to keep him from going back to that lifestyle. He also said that if he can keep one person from getting HIV, then "it's worth it." Randy mentioned that he is proud of what he does and that the job helps his self-esteem.  For all of these reasons, and more, rig-digging is an important job for current or former members of the IV drug using community because it gives them a chance to give something back to society while improving the their own lives and the lives of their peers.  Randy put it well, "I'm gonna dig rigs until I'm 75, with my cane. They can't stop me!"

Until initiatives are taken to prevent used needles from reaching the city's streets, parks, yards and gardens, folks like Wolf, Rick, Randy, and many others will be out there every day, whether they are with AVI, SOLID, the City, the DVBA, or as private citizens, picking up used works and cleaning up our streets. Rick said it best, "It's not like I'm a hero or anything; I'm just out here trying to make things better for all of us."

Now, if only we can do something about those ugly cigarette butts…

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