SEMINOLE HEIGHTS, Fla. — One father says his 9-year-old daughter knew not to touch a hypodermic needle while playing in the park, but he fears other kids may not know better.
Joe Couture lives just a stones throw away from McDugald park in Seminole Heights. He says the park is very family friendly and hosts all kinds of events.
“Football practices, lacrosse practices, baseball,” he said.
He comes to the park quite often with his daughter and says in the daylight it’s a perfect place for families, but at night the atmosphere changes.
“You find a lot of drug bags just lying all over the ground and then just general garbage,” he said.
Couture says people sleep in the park at night on a mattress that’s normally stuffed away during the day. He can see it from his home.
But what really concerns him is a used hypodermic needle his daughter found a few days ago.
“We found the needle sitting right up here,” he said, as he pointed to a security bar covering a window on the bathroom building.
He says it’s a huge health risk for not only his family, but kids that don’t know what it is.
“HIV, Hepatitis C, the reality that Hepatitis C is one of the most communicable diseases through needles and human waste,” said Couture.
He says human feces was also just a few feet away from the needle.
Hillsborough County approved a needle exchange program last week allowing people to exchange old needles with clean fresh ones. The idea is to prevent the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C among drug users.
The City of Tampa says it does not have a program like that.
“I’m not trying to get people in trouble who are trying to find a place to sleep. I’ll build you a bed I just don’t want my daughter to be at risk,” he said. "I’ll clean the park, I have no one to do it again but the next day it’s the same way so the problem is the systemic."
The city said they clean the park daily.
He works with a nonprofit organization called Tribe of Seminole Heights, teaching kids about gardening and the science behind starting and sustaining what they plant.
"It’s just an issue that really really brings a lot of fear into my heart because I work with children and the last thing on earth that I would want to know is that my neglect for not bringing something up caused somebody's life to be impacted at all in a negative way," he said.
County officials recently allocated $4.7 million to The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative to help fund new services with a goal of finding housing opportunities for 560 people in 560 days.
Shared housing with folks who are currently camping together is in the works. Another part of the plan is to get a mobile unit out to a park like McDugald for 30 days or so to connect with people who struggle with homelessness and get them in touch with services that could get them off the street.
Since 2018, 1800 people registered for the Hillsborough county expungement clinic which wipes records clean so they can apply for jobs and housing.
The group says since 2014 they’ve seen a 15% decrease in homelessness and will be taking a new count next Thursday.