Renee Edgington and her husband, Matthew Francis, two artists who pioneered Los Angeles’ needle exchange program to curb the spread of AIDS, have died. She was 40 and he was 35.
The couple died Sunday in a traffic accident while vacationing in South Africa, said Ferd Eggan, AIDS coordinator for the city of Los Angeles.
Both Edgington, who taught art at USC, and Francis were sculptors and creators of installation art. They belonged to the Powers of Desire team of artists based in Hollywood, which exhibits at private galleries, USC and the Pasadena Armory.
As volunteers, Edgington and Francis started Clean Needles Now in 1992, which won approval and financial support from the city. The needle exchange program was initially sponsored by the gay activist group ACT UP and funded by a benefit concert the group sponsored. ACT UP and Clean Needles Now are no longer associated.
Edgington served as coordinator, and she and Francis worked with others to set up free weekly needle exchanges on street corners throughout the city. They cited research by Yale University showing that such a needle exchange program could reduce new HIV infections by one-third in less than a year, and by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that more than one-third of reported AIDS cases in the United States result from intravenous drug users sharing contaminated needles.
“We’re not here to end drug abuse on the streets. That is beyond us,” Edgington told The Times in 1993 as she distributed brown bags of clean needles at Wilshire Boulevard and Burlington Street. “What we’re here for is to slow the spread of AIDS.”
Edgington and two colleagues were booked by police and held for an hour in 1994 after Hollywood residents placed them under citizen’s arrest for breaking a state law that prohibits needle exchanges.
“The facts are there are drugs in Hollywood,” Edgington said at that time. “The services need to be as visible as the drugs.”
The incident helped prompt Mayor Richard Riordan to declare a state of emergency and direct the city attorney and the Los Angeles Police Department to avoid arresting volunteers. Eggan and his office became involved and provided financial support to purchase clean needles and other equipment.
Eggan said Monday that he was unsure what will happen to the program without Edgington and Francis.
“They have been such important pioneers and have fought so hard,” he said. “They leave a very big hole.”
Eggan said a memorial service for the couple will be planned.