Fresno mayor, council members sound alarm over relocation of drug needle-exchange program

A Fresno City Council member whose district includes the city’s downtown core accused the Fresno County Board of Supervisors of becoming “an accessory to drug dealers” after a decision last week to allow a once-a-week needle-exchange program to operate in county-owned space in downtown Fresno.

Councilmember Miguel Arias was joined at a press conference Monday morning by council colleague Garry Bredefeld and Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer to denounce the county board’s Sept. 5 vote to approve a zero-dollar lease for the San Joaquin Valley Free Medical Clinic and Needle Exchange to use space inside the county’s Department of Public Health from noon to 4 p.m. each Saturday. The health department office is at 1221 Fulton St., between Fresno and Merced streets.

“To say that I’m frustrated is not accurate,” Arias said. I’m actually pretty pissed off and angry” about the board’s 3-2 vote.

While the issue was published on the Board of Supervisors agenda late in the week before the Sept. 5 vote, the city leaders said they were unaware of the issue until after the supervisors’ action. But, they added, it should be the county’s responsibility to let stakeholders on Fulton Street and downtown know in advance what was being considered.

“Not only did (the county) not reach out to the residents and businesses and the Downtown Partnership, they didn’t reach out to the city of Fresno,” Dyer said. “They made this decision in a vacuum, and I hope they have the sense to overturn it.”

The needle exchange is part of a weekly medical clinic that currently operates from an aging recreational vehicle on a cul de sac of Hedges Avenue, north of Roeding Park. The head of the clinic, Dr. Marc Lasher, said the program typically receives between 16,000 and 20,000 used needles from drug users each Saturday afternoon during the two hours that the program now operates. It also offers pipes as an alternative to injecting drugs.

The lease is for a two-year pilot program.

Bredefeld stressed his opposition based on the idea that a needle exchange program fosters increased drug abuse.

“I know what it takes for drug addicts to stop using drugs,” said Bredefeld, who spent more than 35 years as a clinical psychologist. “It takes accountability, commitment to sobriety and living a drug-free life.”

“It involves intensive drug treatment and programming – the exact opposite of what the board has offered with the free needle exchange and pipe program,” he added. “With that program, there is no accountability, just facilitation of drug usage.”

“The taxpayer, unbeknownst to them, is funding the ongoing drug usage of addicts, criminals and the homeless,” Bredefeld said. “It’s complete insanity and misuse of taxpayer money.

Arias similarly objected to the program based on the potential effects on drug users. “Instead of providing resident with shelters and treatment programs, the Board of Supervisors has become the drug dealers’ assistant by providing free needles and crack pipes that will kill them slowly,” he said.

Instead of providing treatment options for drug addition or mental health, the county board “would rather implement San Francisco- and Los Angeles-style programs that only lead to a lot of empty souls and zombies walking in our downtown corridor.”

Arias and Dyer also addressed their concerns about how relocating the program downtown would affect efforts by the city to revitalize Fresno’s core.

“This corridor was designed for us to have public festivals,” Arias said. “They didn’t consider the location or stakeholders who will be impacted by it. Instead, they just chose to impose it in a city that’s been investing tens of millions of dollars” on improvements to downtown.

Users of injection drugs exchange hundreds of used hypodermic needles for new ones through the San Joaquin Valley Free Medical Clinic and Needle Exchange in this Fresno Bee file photo.
Users of injection drugs exchange hundreds of used hypodermic needles for new ones through the San Joaquin Valley Free Medical Clinic and Needle Exchange in this Fresno Bee file photo.

Dyer, who spent decades with the Fresno Police Department, including serving as police chief before retiring and then being elected mayor, said he was stuck by needles numerous times over his career searching suspects. “I certainly understand the importance of clean needles in our community,” he said.

But he decried the supervisors decision “to locate the needle exchange program in the heart of our downtown area.”

“It’s wrong because they did not consider the impact this would have on our businesses … and the impact it might have on investors that we are trying to lure into downtown for the purpose of building housing and retail and restaurants,” Dyer added.

The mayor also noted that the city has won commitments this year from the state of California for almost $300 million for downtown revitalization.

“Is this the image that we want for downtown Fresno – hundreds of addicts lined up on Fulton (Street)?” Dyer asked. “Do we want hundreds of these individuals lined up on a Saturday on Fulton (Street) while we’re in the midst of a festival? Is this the image we want for people who are thinking about relocating downtown to live?”

Arias said he knew of one potential business operator that pulled out of relocating in a vacant restaurant space across the street from the health department offices after the board’s action. Arias described the “yes” votes by Supervisors Brian Pacheco, Sal Quintero and Buddy Mendes as “short-sighted and a big middle finger to everyone who has spent years revitalizing downtown.”

Fresno County officials responded with a press release and press conference Monday afternoon countering some of the claims of city leaders, including assertions that the county was helping to pay for the needle exchange program.

“Though the program has been operating for years in the city near Roeding Park, the county has not provided funds to underwrite the program,” county administrators said.

David Luchini, director of the Fresno County Department of Public Health, said there would be no issue of people waiting outside along Fulton Street on Saturday afternoons. “All persons served will be able to wait inside the building, instead of waiting in lines outdoors,” Luchini said. “It also adds dignity for people coming in to these programs, get them out of the severe weather in to a climate-controlled environment.”

The county said security will be on hand once the program relocates to ensure “a secure and safe environment” both inside and outside the building.

Luchini and Joe Prado, the county’s assistant health director, added that offering an indoor site rather than operating out on the street is necessary to help build trust among clients. “This program is about building trust,” Luchini said. “To get people to participate in drug treatment programs, you have to build trust.” Part of that trust-buiding, he added, is the ability to offer “wrap-around” social services in employment, housing, food assistance and general relieve, and mental and behavioral health programs.

Prado said one goal is to “bring them in under a controlled environment and have more time to talk to them, to see what issues are really happening.”

“If they’re able to come into our building and have a conversation about drug treatment, about CalWORKS (employment assistance), about all these other things, we want to be able to support them,” Prado added.

Prado said the health department will be convening a meeting with nearby businesses later this month after hearing from some about how the program will operate, and discuss how to address any concerns.

Paul Nerland, the county administrative officer, said a briefing report from the health department to the Board of Supervisors was issued as a public document on Aug. 14, several weeks before the Sept. 5 vote. Prior to Monday’s press conference by Bredefeld, Dyer and Arias, “the county received no direct communication from the city expressing any concerns,” Nerland said.

Nerland added that since the board’s Sept. 5 vote, “the health department is working on implementation, including outreach to businesses and welcomes any dialogue with the city of Fresno.”

As for sharing such information prior to the board’s vote, however, Nerland allowed, “we can always say we can do better on that front.”