Former drug user on mission to help vulnerable on Seattle streets
In Seattle’s bustling downtown, hundreds of people are living on the streets and battling drug addiction.
That’s also where social worker Mikel Kowalcyk believes she can make a real difference.
“The people that I work best with are the people suffering from substance abuse disorder and homelessness, because they kind of go together,” Kowalcyk said.
Kowalcyk, 47, is a screening and outreach coordinator for REACH, a program that helps those experiencing both homelessness and drug addiction.
Unlike other treatment programs, sobriety isn’t a requirement in REACH. Instead, Kowalcyk tries to meet people’s needs where they are.
“Some people are never going to stop using, and that’s OK,” Kowalcyk said. “There’s a whole history of trauma that makes drugs attractive…That heroin helps them get through the day. And if you take that away, all of that pain is still there, and then what? Then what do we do? So it’s not just about ‘stop using.’ The drug use is just a symptom of underlying issues.”
She’ll ask how their day is going, give them something to eat or a clean syringe.
Kowalcyk also can empathize from personal experience. Now, she is nearly five years sober after more than 20 years of using drugs.
“There’s lots of different theories on addiction, some of it is pharmaceutical companies over-prescribing oxycontin. I personally believe it’s generations of untreated trauma,” said Kowalcyk. “My father was an alcoholic, drank himself to death…It’s a family disease. My job was to break the cycle.”
The need in Seattle for programs to address homelessness and drug addiction has never been greater. Both have spiked in Seattle in recent years.
On average, two people die every day from an opioid overdose in Washington state. Seattle has been hit especially hard. Almost 400 King County residents died in 2017 as a result of drug and alcohol use, an increase from the 348 people who died in 2016. Heroin and opioids were the most common drugs involved in the fatal overdoses, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness also reported that on an average single night in King County in 2016, an estimated 4,500 people were living on the streets, a 19 percent increase from 2015.
The issues have some links. Overdose was the leading cause of death for people experiencing homelessness in 2017, according to the medical examiner’s office.
But REACH has been gaining attention recently for its non-punitive approach to addressing drug addiction and homelessness. REACH was founded in 1996 by Evergreen Treatment Services, a Washington addiction treatment nonprofit, to coordinate 17 programs with experimental approaches to drug treatment.
REACH helps people who are chronically homeless, have a chronic health condition and have a chronic addiction to drugs or alcohol, Kowalcyk said. A person battling addiction and homelessness who is also navigating the criminal justice system qualifies for a REACH program called Law Enforcement Assisted Divergence, commonly known as LEAD.
In LEAD, Seattle-area law enforcement agencies collaborate with REACH programs when they find people commiting low-level drug-related crimes. Participating law enforcement includes Seattle Police Department, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Seattle City Attorney’s Office.
Law enforcement partners and coordinators at REACH and other treatment organizations meet regularly to go over the needs of the community — and even address the needs of specific clients.
“It’s the first time that people are sitting at the table that don’t traditionally talk to each other,” said Kowalcyk, whose clients are part of LEAD. “So to have a King County prosecutor talking to a case manager to decide the fate of a client who has committed a crime is new.”
LEAD started seven years ago in the Belltown neighborhood but has since expanded to several other precincts in Seattle after the pilot proved successful. A 2015 University of Washington study found LEAD clients were 58 percent less likely to be arrested.
Kowalcyk’s work with LEAD comes after her own run-ins with the criminal justice system. She began using drugs and alcohol when she was 14 years old. At 35 she was arrested for the first time.
Treatment Services to provide resources to people battling drug addiction and homelessness in Seattle. Today her work includes walking around downtown Seattle looking for REACH clients.
Kowalcyk, who has spoken to other publications about the benefits of diversion programs, has said she was asked to choose between going to jail or to going through drug court, a year-long rehabilitation program. She chose rehab.
Since then, she’s been in and out of recovery for 12 years, and clean for nearly five years.
She also went to school to become a probation officer, but landed a job as a case manager at REACH shortly after completing her drug court program.
Since then, she has worked successfully with clients like Johnny Bousquet, 41, who is experiencing homelessness and has been out of rehab for five months.
“I’ve had some some good times and bad times. Right now I’m having good times,” Bousquet said. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without the LEAD program here because my case manager literally will pick me up and take me to appointments.”
But there are always reminders that the struggle for sobriety and stability can be ongoing for many. At the REACH offices in downtown Seattle, coordinators designed a wall displaying the photos of clients who have died. A table under the photographs holds bread of life, salt and sugar skulls. Their photos and names surround the words “Life is Beautiful.”
“It’s a way to celebrate their lives and to remember that we work with really vulnerable people and get to be a part of their lives often at the last stage,” Kowalcyk said.
The daily interactions she has with her clients keep her going, she said.
“Where there’s breath, there’s hope,” she said. “Because I’m alive.”
This story was produced as part of the Next Generation Radio Project, a week-long digital journalism training project designed to give competitively selected participants, who are interested in radio and journalism, the skills and opportunity to report and produce their own multimedia story. Those chosen for the project are paired with a professional journalist who serves as their mentor. KUOW hosted the project in July 2018.