Addiction

Meet the Rig Diggers: Current and former addicts who collect used needles in Victoria

They usually find eight per shift. Last week they broke a record.

By Anna J. James
September 2, 2020
Addiction

Meet the Rig Diggers: Current and former addicts who collect used needles in Victoria

They usually find eight per shift. Last week they broke a record.

By Anna J. James
Sep 2, 2020
Mikko Lindroos (James MacDonald for Capital Daily)
Addiction

Meet the Rig Diggers: Current and former addicts who collect used needles in Victoria

They usually find eight per shift. Last week they broke a record.

By Anna J. James
September 2, 2020
Meet the Rig Diggers: Current and former addicts who collect used needles in Victoria
Mikko Lindroos (James MacDonald for Capital Daily)

On August 23, a man stepped on an uncapped needle in Beacon Hill Park, and two days later, someone found a syringe taped to a park bench in Centennial Square. It’s fair to say the need for the SOLID Outreach Society has never been greater. The nonprofit sends out crews to collect discarded needles, known as ‘rigs,’ from Victoria’s streets, parks, and school grounds.

On a recent day, Mikko Lindroos and Simon Snotface (his professional moniker) started their Rig Digging shift on North Park Street. Armed with gloves, buckets, giant backpacks, and trash grippers, they walked at the same pace along opposite sides of the street, eyes glued to the ground, grippers in hand.

Simon Snotface (Photo by James MacDonald for Capital Daily)

Lindroos paused at a hedge in front of a condo. “People always duck and hide when they do needles, so you gotta look around the bushes,” he said.

Even 25 years after he stopped using needles — he says he started using drugs at 11 — Lindroos said the thought of it is “still tempting.” He smokes daily — meth, opiates, or whatever he can get his hands on — and takes a prescribed synthetic opioid that reduces his need to use street drugs.

The Rig Diggers go out in pairs each weekday at 9:15am. On a regular two-hour shift, they’ll usually collect eight needles. But just the day before, Snotface found 26 along Pandora Street, breaking what he said was the previous record of 18.

Rig Diggers Simon Snotface and Mikko Lindroos (Photo by James MacDonald for Capital Daily)

The Rig Diggers also pass out supplies, both loose and in kits, to reduce the chance of infection and overdose. “Do you need any supplies?” Lindroos asked a man passing by. The man requested two balloon meth pipes. These pipes have a stem connected to a glass bowl. Meth is placed in the bowl, a lighter is held underneath, and the smoke is inhaled through the stem. SOLID charges $2 for a balloon pipe; other supplies (rigs, alcohol swabs, and sterilized water vials) are free. The man handed over $5 without wanting change, remarking that balloon pipes usually sell for $10. Lindroos then offered him a free type of pipe as a backup. He searched his bag, and when he couldn’t find one, he yelled up the road to Snotface, “You got any stem pipes? You know, the straight shooters? A gentleman here needs one.”

A big part of SOLID’s goal is to restore dignity — both to drug users (through clean supplies) and the City of Victoria (through safety and cleanliness). Both Diggers said citizens often express their gratitude.

“I never expected so many ‘thank yous,’” said Lindroos.

Mikko Lindroos (Photo by James MacDonald for Capital Daily)

Lindroos entered a playground, bracing himself for what could be the hardest part of his shift. “Now this is where I get really angry if I find something,” he said. He rarely finds needles here. “People usually pick up after themselves,” he says, but he gave the area a good scour anyway. Finding nothing, he moved on.

At the end of their shift, Lindroos and Snotface took 15 discarded needles back to SOLID’s headquarters on the corner of Cook and North Park Street. They handed their buckets over to manager Fred Cameron, who carefully counted out and recorded the shift’s haul. The needles are locked up in sealed pails and collected by Stericycle once a month to be incinerated in Vancouver.

Of SOLID’s 42 employees, about 90% are in active addiction. Most work as Rig Diggers for at least six months (they’re paid $25 per shift). “Basically I never stop hiring,” said Cameron. “We go with people who are doing well at the time.”

The Capital Daily newsletter is a summary of all the news and events happening in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.
Subscribe Today

Four years ago, Cameron arrived in Victoria from Alberta with a fierce cocaine addiction and his life in two garbage bags. He spent two years living at the Umbrella Society’s recovery house before joining SOLID as a worker. He is now a well-respected leader, affectionately called Narc by his team because his Boy Scout demeanour makes it difficult for them to imagine his life in tatters.

Fred Cameron (Anna J. James/Capital Daily)

SOLID hires employees on the basis of lived experience. Those who’ve had brushes with the law, experience with poverty, and, of course, an intimate relationship with addiction make for more desirable hires, because they can often relate to the people they encounter on the street. “We talk to people as our peers and friends,” said Dan MacDonald.

Not everyone at the organization has a drug history. MacDonald doesn’t, and he’s been volunteering with SOLID for 17 years.

SOLID started in 2003 without funding or supplies and with several well-meaning advocates who had conflicting ideas on what harm reduction would look like in practice. “Back in the day, in the board meetings, it was almost guaranteed there was going to be a fistfight,” said MacDonald. SOLID receives its funding through a patchwork of grants, namely from VIHA and UVic.

Early on, the public had a hard time understanding SOLID’s mission to serve drug users. “Most people said, ‘Why the hell are you helping them?’ But now they know if we fail, that just means more death,” said MacDonald. SOLID has made huge inroads in securing funding, a stable board, and name recognition on the street in the last two decades, but the organization is still learning as it goes. “We don’t have set rules because we are still new at this. Harm reduction is still new,” said MacDonald.

Dan MacDonald (Anna J. James/Capital Daily)

In SOLID’s cramped basement, MacDonald assembled two types of drug kits for the next day’s Rig Digging crew. The kit for opioid users is extensive: five cookers (which can be used twice and in place of spoons), plastic vials of sterilized water, alcohol swabs, rubber tourniquets, injectable Vitamin C (in case the product is too thick and therefore hard to inject), and needles — some of which may end up on the street, ready for the Rig Diggers to collect.

Kits dispensed by SOLID for IV drug users (Anna J. James/Capital Daily)
anna@capnews.ca