OAKLAND, Calif. - A van stolen in Oakland contained some valuable cargo: thousands of hypodermic needles distributed by a needle exchange program.
The non-profit HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County discovered the 2001 Ford van missing on Monday. It had been parked the Friday before at its customary spot, a parking space in a locked and gated storage facility.
"They're our wheels, our wheels, if you can just imagine that," said HEPPAC Executive Director Loris Mattox. "When you pay a monthly fee and there's a locked, coded gate, you don't assume your vehicle's going to be stolen."
Inside the white panel van, in addition to syringes, were dozens of doses of Narcan, the drug that revives people from overdose, plus Fentanyl test kits, and a variety of medical supplies.
"Our reach around the community is definitely going to decrease," Mattox told KTVU, "especially around the encampments, so we're focused on maintaining our fixed exchange sites."
Tuesday evening, one of those exchange sites was in action outside a sprawling homeless encampment in East Oakland.
People streamed from the camp and nearby neighborhoods to line up for free services.
"You need a smoke kit ? How about some pears or plums?" Mattox asked clients as they moved, assembly-line style, along a table. "Condoms, cotton, safe cookers?" Mattox continued, "some sterile water?"
It is a weekly scene at three Oakland sites: distribution of medical supplies and hot soup, along with testing for HIV and hepatitis C.
And many people arrive clutching bags of used needles to swap for new ones.
"Any dirties, dirties to exchange? " asked HEPPAC Harm Reduction Coordinator Denise Lopez, on a swing through the camp with a bio-bucket in hand.
A man came forward with a few dozen needles in a Zip-lock bag, and traded for a new supply.
He humbly offered a small piece of paper, calling it "an IOU note," but no payment is needed.
HEPPAC was founded in 1994 during the AIDS crisis, and is now dealing with waves of IV drug users.
"The lack of wheels and the lack of program supplies, it hinders our capacity to address the opioid epidemic," worried Mattox.
She is working with the storage facility and Oakland Police to secure surveillance video of the theft, but it appears two men scaled or cut through a wire fence to enter the property, then hot-wired the van, and drove it out.
Not including the value of the vehicle, HEPPAC estimates the loss at $16,000.
"These people are very important to us, they give their time," observed client Erica Wilson, who has been coming to outreach events for a few years. "It keeps needles off the street and keeps drug addicts kind of responsible because you have to give some to get some."
She and other participants were surprised to hear the van -such a fixture- was stolen.
"They probably thought there was something in there they could get high on, and there's not, it's just stuff in there to save your life," she mused.
And the life-saving will go on, say staff and volunteers.
HEPPAC estimates it exchanges 1 million syringes each year.
So far in this year, 100 lives are known to have been saved by the Narcan kits given away.
The fact that someone may be selling stolen "harm reduction" supplies is disheartening but won't distract from their mission.
"The folks know us in the community and expect us to be there," said Lopez, "and people come and do Narcan at every exchange. They count on us."