Since he can remember, Geoff has made a conscious decision to search out clean needles as he continues to fight his heroin addiction.
Now that the 39-year-old homeless man with Hepatitis C uses a one-stop service where he can exchange his used needles for new ones, his health concerns are lessened.
Geoff, who didn't want his surname published to protect his privacy, found a needle exchange in the neighbourhood in which he panhandles and sleeps on the streets. "I was one of the original people to start using it," he said by telephone Tuesday as he walked down a noisy alley.
Drug addicts using needle exchanges in Vancouver is not a new phenomenon. Officially, the service has been around since the late 1980s and programs are available at all eight of Vancouver Coastal Health's community health centres.
But when Geoff discovered the needle exchange in his neighbourhood, his first impression was that it was "kind of funny."
Why? "Because it's Kerrisdale," he said of the quiet, wealthy West Side enclave.
This year, the Pacific Spirit Community Health Centre at West 43rd Avenue and West Boulevard marks the 10th anniversary of its needle exchange. It's located in a small room on the third floor of the centre, where staff meet one-on-one with clients. They're offered clean needles and other injection tools including clean water, swabs and surgical bands. Condoms and crack cocaine smoking kits are also available.
In 2012, the health centre recorded 90 visits by a core of about 10 people. More than 1,100 used needles were returned and 2,207 provided. The previous year, 56 visits translated to 2,063 needles returned and 1,552 provided. The centre's highest number of needles handed out occurred in 2010, when staff issued 2,353 needles.
Mark Haden, the addiction clinical supervisor of the centre, said the majority of clients are homeless. Occasionally, people he described as middle class use the service.
But, as Haden pointed out, the needle exchange is one service of many the centre provides for people fighting an addiction.
The exchange, he said, is really a point of contact to get clients into counselling, treatment, set up in housing, or all three, depending on the client. Haden tells a story of a former client who used to panhandle outside the nearby London Drugs. Recently, the man stopped by the centre to thank the staff. "He had transformed himself," Haden said from his office. "He was a street entrenched individual and he said he was housed, employed and that he'd gone back to school. I'd like to think we played a part in that."
Though some people may think otherwise, the centre has not recorded a single complaint about the needle exchange since it began operating in 2003. "We've had no community complaints, we've had no business complaints, we've had no disturbance problems - we've had zero issues," Haden said. "To some extent, I think it's a reflection of the discussion in Vancouver. We've been through so many discussions around Insite [supervised injection site on East Hastings] and everything else, that I think the folks in Vancouver are pretty accepting of it."
Geoff, meanwhile, said he is on a methadone program and the centre is working on finding him housing. For now, the Toronto-born man will continue sleeping on the streets of Kerrisdale and Oakridge.
"When I started to actually have to panhandle for my money around Granville Street, I asked someone: 'Where's a richer neighbourhood?' Someone told me Kerrisdale. So I went there."