At a King County council meeting earlier this month, Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles sought to allay fears about supervised drug consumption sites being imposed on unwilling neighborhoods.
“Public Health cannot sneak one in before there would be a public vote on this,” Kohl-Welles said.
But advocates with a privately funded needle exchange in Seattle’s University District said they are prepared to offer a safe consumption site ahead of the vote.
Shilo Jama is the executive director of the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, which supplies needles, pipes, Naloxone and treatment referrals to drug users out of a small office in the University District. He’s also a member of the county task force that recommended the sites. Jama said it’s vital that King County act on all the task force recommendations to stem the opioid crisis. He’s prepared to offer a place where people can inject heroin and smoke cocaine and methamphetamine under the supervision of healthcare workers.
“We’d like to open one as soon as possible,” Jama said. “King County Public Health would like us to work in their system, and we’re happy to do that as long as it does not take years on end to do it. And their system is seeming to be stagnated. So I think it is time to move forward by any means necessary.”
In 2016, drug overdoses killed 332 people in King County. Jama said addicts need to feel valued and loved in order to have the incentive to change. And having a nonjudgmental place where they can get help is a key part of that.
“Engaging their health just the way they are and meeting them just the way they are will be the path to success,” he said.
Jama’s needle exchange is located in the University Temple United Methodist Church, across the street from the University Bookstore. The church is a cavernous brick building that also houses a childcare center, a young adult shelter, a hygiene center and meal programs.
Earlier this year, the needle exchange installed some portables with the understanding that they would be used for a supervised drug consumption site. Pastor Pat Simpson said a site like this is in line with her church’s mission, and the church trustees voted unanimously to host it as soon as possible.
“The church’s approval of this program to support PHRA providing it on our property did not set any conditions about government or health department approval,” she said.
Opponents of the sites have filed Initiative 27, which seeks to ban supervised consumption sites in King County.
If voters pass Initiative 27 to outlaw the sites, Simpson said they would have to figure out compliance once that happens.
She said the site would save lives by reversing drug overdoses, and she believes it would help the neighborhood by giving drug users a place to go.
The measure is currently scheduled for the February 13th ballot. Sponsor Joshua Freed said he supports the other task force recommendations, like increased treatment on demand. But not supervised consumption.
“Opening heroin injection sites is really what I take an issue with, and the 69,850 people that signed onto Initiative 27 also take an issue with,” he said. “For one, it’s going to steal resources from our budget that would otherwise go toward making sure we have proper treatment.”
Freed visited Insite, the supervised injection site in Vancouver, B.C., and said people were using heroin all around the facility.
“Having injection sites doesn’t bring people inside,” he said. “What it does is it creates – in Canada it’s a five-block radius that surrounds Insite, and it’s the legalization of heroin use and possession that they come for.”
Jama doesn’t dispute Freed’s description of Vancouver, but he said Seattle could avoid those pitfalls.
“Vancouver has kind of a needle ghetto," he said. "It has a large concentration of injection drug users in one place. Seattle is very spread out. For safe consumptions to work, we’re going to need to have multiple sites, and ideally they will be small sites that are tied into other existing services.”
Jama said European cities have followed this model.
But so far, cities in King County have scrambled to ban them. King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert has sought a moratorium on funding until the public vote takes place. She said Seattle politicians are out of step with the rest of King County.
“Inside Seattle, it has appeared in the last couple of years that their social expectation is do whatever you want to do. Sleep on the streets. Defecate wherever you want,” she said.
Meanwhile, business owners in Seattle’s University District are divided.
At a community meeting, one U-District restaurant owner called it “appalling” that Seattle would allow a site like this in a small business district.
Café Allegro co-owner Kate Robinson said she supports opening the safe consumption site soon — if it’s closely monitored by medical and mental health professionals. Robinson’s coffee shop shares an alley with the needle exchange. She said it’s always been a tolerant place where students and homeless people could all belong.
“We have great relationships with all the social services and we try to work together to address issues solve problems and make community a good space that’s welcoming to everyone,” Robinson said.
But Robinson, Jama and Pastor Simpson agree: This summer was rough due to an influx of violent and troubled people frequenting the alley.
Robinson said her business declined, and she had a staff member who was physically assaulted. She’s wondered if it’s worth staying open given safety concerns.
“That’s a really heavy thing to carry,” she said. “It’s a really, really sad state that we’re at. I know it’s going to turn around; I have faith that it’s going to turn around. But it’s really tough right now.”
Sharon Larcey and her boyfriend live in their vehicle; they often come to the church on Fridays to see friends and have a hot meal.
“I love the staff, very appreciative. And most of the people who come here I am friends with,” Larcey said. But she said newcomers have strained the alley’s resources and hospitality.
“A lot of them are semi-unstable or drug users,” she said. “We try and accommodate them and accept them, as long as they don’t cause incidents.”
Larcey said the needle exchange helps many of her friends. One thing that people here seem to agree on is that – with or without a supervised consumption site – there are people in this neighborhood who desperately need help.