Every morning, this Vancouver playground gets checked for used needles

Strathcona Community Centre staff do a 'safety sweep' of the grounds every day, checking for drug paraphernalia before kids arrive.

Strathcona Community Centre staff do a daily 'safety sweep'

Veronica Light said staff use grabbers and tongs to pick up any garbage they find — never their bare hands. (CBC)

Drink coffee, have a stretch, check for used needles on the playground.

That's part of the morning routine at the Strathcona Community Centre, where staff sweep nearby playgrounds for used needles every day.

Employees scan for drug paraphernalia, used condoms, broken bottles and even human waste before children start to arrive.

"It's very seldom we go through a sweep and find nothing," said childcare co-ordinator Veronica Light, who shows up to start the sweep at 7 a.m.

The centre sits a few blocks south of the Downtown Eastside and next to Lord Strathcona Community School. It offers child care, preschool classes and breakfast programs.

Staff place any used needles they find in a sharps container for disposal by city officials later on. (CBC)

Light said safety sweeps have become the norm at the centre — so much so, even the children are used to it.

"My understanding is that, for most of the kids, they were taught early what not to pick up ... the kids around here definitely know," Light said.

"They'll happily wait on the edge of the playground."

Light said the situation hit a new low last summer as the province grappled with an overdose crisis.

"We had children watching people in overdose situations," Light said. "We had to be very careful about how we presented people who were overdosing to the children.

"[We'd tell them] 'they're not bad. They're not the enemy. It's a medical issue.' It's unfortunate that the kids have had to watch some very serious medical crises in the neighbourhood."

'Reality for a long time'

In 2016, more than 900 people died of an illicit drug overdose in B.C. Most of those deaths happened in Vancouver, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

In a statement, the City of Vancouver told CBC News that plans are in place to "scale up efforts" on needle pick-ups.

The city has already allocated around $250,000 for a street cleaning grant program to better maintain streets — including increased "needle sweeps" in the Strathcona area.

​The Vancouver School Board also said that its employees have been scanning the elementary school grounds daily, and the Vancouver Park Board is considering a request from the Community Centre for $200,000 in annual funding. 

"There's going to be a pot of money there and then the Park Board is going to look at which ways we can take away some of the expenditures from Strathcona so that they don't take such a large burden and need all of the grant money that they do raise," said Park Board chair Michael Wiebe. 

The Park Board will vote on that funding model next month. In the meantime, Light said the extra help from the city will be more than welcome, but added that centre staff won't be letting up on their own efforts.

"I feel really confident that the staff can find things ... here in Strathcona, we all look out for each other."

With files from CBC's Michelle Ghoussoub