Above: Needle Hunter Theresa, photo by Nicholas Galipeau. For the full video produced by Nicholas Galipeau about the Needle Hunters click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcICu7_9kE8
You may have seen them: dressed in brightly coloured vests, holding long-stemmed tongs, feet and hands protected by work boots and gloves. They walk at a quick pace, their eyes dart expertly backwards and forwards, searching dark alleyways, flower beds, the tops of garbage cans and behind dumpsters.
Their job? Searching for and collecting discarded needles, condoms and drug paraphernalia – they call themselves the Needle Hunters.
Through a unique partnership with the City of Ottawa, Causeway hires, trains, and supervises up to forty men and women who are at risk of homelessness due to recovery from addiction and/or some form of mental illness. They are paid employees, with scheduled shifts and the responsibility of protecting the public from potential hazards by ridding the environment of dangerous discarded items. They are a group of individuals selected because they have had difficulty integrating into the traditional workforce. Experiences of trauma and abuse and have in effect forced them to the fringes of society.
In 2014 alone, the Needle Hunters collected a total of 13,046 needles off the streets of Ottawa. Surprisingly it is the only program of its kind that exists in a major city centre in Canada.
There are four routes recognized as high drug use areas: Lowertown, Centretown, Carlington, and Vanier. On one route, a total of eleven needles and nine condoms were recovered on the 4-6pm shift alone. Earlier that morning, four used needles were found. Tomorrow morning, more used needles, cookers, and tourniquets will re-appear on that same route.
Observing the Needle Hunters at work on the Lowertown route, it becomes apparent that beyond cleaning up the community and providing much needed income, the program has had a direct effect on the participants’ physical and mental well-being. Allen, a soft-spoken middle-aged man on disability, explained his personal reasons for continuing on as a Needle Hunter for nearly a decade: “for me, it’s a reason to get out of bed every day”.
Unemployment, reliance on social assistance, and low self-esteem are among results of mental illness. For many Needle Hunters, depression has kept them from being active members in society. Now, participation in the program provides motivation, structure, and independence in their lives. Allen says he’s often been thanked by people and offered coffee, gift cards, and handshakes expressing appreciation for what he is contributing to the neighbourhood. He says that this acknowledgement gives him a sense of pride in his work.
Darlene started only recently with Needle Hunters and has already seen a positive change in her life. She lives in a basement apartment, and while her daughter is in school, her Lowertown route gives her an opportunity to “clear (her) head, breathe some fresh air, and get some Vitamin D”. The job gives a sense of purpose to her day and has helped with her depression as well.
When living with mental illness, life can become isolating, the sense of being connected to the community is often lost. With the Needle Hunters program, participants regain that sense of connection; many were once themselves living on the streets and now they feel they’re able to shape their neighbourhoods in a positive way.
For Theresa and Glen, keeping the community safe is a top priority. But when you ask them about the job, they are most grateful for the improvement in their own health since becoming Needle Hunters.
Glen, a Needle Hunter for five years, was diagnosed as ‘obese’ and had extremely high blood pressure. Now he’s proud to say his blood pressure has been lowered and he has lost much of the weight his doctor told him to lose. Theresa was also told by a doctor that she must exercise in order to improve her health. Since she has become a Needle Hunter, her doctor has given her a clean bill of health and she is very thankful. She says, the Needle Hunters program “feeds my soul”.
Causeway has always recognized physical health as one of the fundamental keys to self-care in combatting mental illness, and addiction. Through the Needle Hunters program, many are finding their lives improving, one step at a time.