The day Shilo Murphy found his friend dead from an overdose, he resolved to change his life.
He wouldn’t quit drugs. He liked how heroin made him feel. But he wanted to improve the lives of drug users.
"My experience of having a close friend die was that I wasn't going to take it anymore,” Murphy told KUOW’s Ross Reynolds. “It being the conditions we lived under, the discrimination we felt, the constant violence towards us.”
It was the 1990s, and Murphy was homeless. He lived in the neighborhood, typically squatting with others in abandoned buildings.
He and his friend had used opiates the night before. The next morning, his friend wouldn’t wake up. Murphy had one thought – to get him outside.
“I put him in the grass,” he said. “I didn't want him to die in the trash that we had to live in.”
He joined the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, which has been running a needle exchange in the University District for 25 years. The exchange provides clean meth and crack pipes and needles for heroin. Open five days a week, it operates in an alley off University Way and 43rd Street Northeast. (They also schedule deliveries.)
“I wasn't going to let another person die from a needless death,” said Murphy, now the head of the alliance.
But he didn’t want to give up drugs. Drugs had opened his mind, and they were a part of his social life.
"To be perfectly honest, I have always enjoyed drugs and they've always made my life better,” he said. “I saw drugs as not only a means to escape but a means to inspire me for greatness.”
The needle exchange focuses on safe use rather than abstinence. The idea behind the exchange is that clean paraphernalia reduces infections like hepatitis C and HIV.
He believes that drugs should be legal for this reason. Legal drugs would be regulated by the government so users wouldn’t have to trust back-alley deals. And users could talk with their doctors about dosage without worrying about being arrested.
“You could have an open discussion with your doctor about your drug use in a way that you can’t now,” Murphy said. “Less people would die. More people could get treated. It would be less of a stigma.”
But not everyone can be a stable drug user, he said. “We have chaotic drug users, and we have people who are stable drug users, and we seem to focus the entire conversation on chaotic drug use.”
At the needle exchange, Murphy tells every person who approaches the table that they are beautiful the way they are and that he loves them. “Everyone's telling you how worthless you are,” he said; low self-esteem is a common trait among many users.
That support was missing when he was living in squats. He was known as an “Ave rat,” back then – part of a crew of kids who hung out on University Avenue.
“I am an Ave rat for life, and I will always be,” Murphy said. “It is a creed that I am incredibly proud of, but it's also where a lot of my own personal trauma comes from.”
Trauma stemmed from hunger and violence. “I’ve been beaten up many times and been hit many times, whether it be with a shop owner’s broomstick or a student’s fist, or even a conflict with another homeless person,” he said.
Life is better now, but he reflects on the intensity of that time with some fondness. Even today, though, friends in his community die – some from drugs, others from suicide. Their photos are up at the needle exchange.
“When I find out one of our participants or one of the homeless folks in the neighborhood die, I can't help going to my office and I cry,” Murphy said.
“I am just heartbroken that we lost another community member. That we were foolish enough to allow this to happen. It makes me fight so much harder.”
Produced for the Web by Isolde Raftery.