Aurora Commons founder Lisa Carlson talks about her organization and the friends she's lost to drug overdoses.
Aurora Commons founder Lisa Carlson talks about her organization and the friends she's lost to drug overdoses.

Two pilot locations for safe drug consumption sites in King County haven’t yet been determined, but education and advocacy remains strong on the Hill.

The King County Board of Health in mid-January unanimously approved a final report by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, which recommends piloting two Community Health Engagement Locations (CHELs) — one in Seattle and one outside the city.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine have directed Seattle/King County Public Health to implement those recommendations.

Leading the charge for siting the Seattle CHEL in Capitol Hill is the Capitol Hill Community Council, which co-hosted a documentary screening and panel discussion with VOCAL-WA at Seattle First Baptist Church on Wednesday, March 22.

The Washington chapter of Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL) was formed through the Public Defenders Association, and began campaigning for safe drug consumption sites more than a year ago, prior to the county task force’s formation.

VOCAL-WA and CHCC teamed up last summer to host a popup safe consumption space exhibit in Seattle, as well as a screening of the documentary “Everywhere but Safe” and panel discussion. Wednesday night’s forum consisted of different panelists, but with the same message of support for places where people suffering from addiction can safely consume drugs under medical supervision and access social and treatment services when ready.

Opioid-related deaths tripled in King County from 2009 to 2014, hitting an all-time high in 2015, said Karen Hartfield, Public Health-Seattle & King County health services administrator, communicable disease epidemiology.

There were 229 heroin and prescription overdose deaths in King County in 2015. Heroin succeeded prescription opioids as the primary cause of opioid overdose deaths in 2013, according to the task force report.

Hartfield told a full room at the church March 22 she was grateful the mayor and county executive accepted the task force’s recommendations, for which CHELs are just one part.

“Treatment expansion is actually the number-one priority for the task force,” she said.

Most heroin users want to kick their addiction, but are not always ready. They also don’t want to die, she said.

CHEL sites will allow people to consume their drugs under supervision and safely discard needles and other equipment. There will be a space for people to stay a short time after using.

These sites will also be a service center for people struggling with addiction, many also being homeless. Hartfield said those services will include on-demand treatment, wound care, primary care, contraception and case management.

“A CHEL is a gateway for someone to get the services they need while they’re still actually using,” she said.

Hartfield said the two pilot CHEL sites will be chosen based on where data shows drug users are, and particularly in areas with high overdose incidents. She told the Capitol Hill Times those areas include the west side of Capitol Hill, Belltown, Pioneer Square and SODO neighborhoods.

Two CHEL sites will not meet the demand, Hartfield said, but will provide the insight needed to adapt the program for future expansion.

“The voices really make a difference,” Hartfield added of the site selection process. “I can tell you that where I sit.”

She told the Capitol Hill Times the task force found through local focus groups and surveys that drug users will only be willing to travel to a CHEL site if it is within 15 minutes from where they are.

The task force remains active, and work groups are still convening to determine potential CHEL sites, said VOCAL-WA coordinator Patricia Sully.

“I love their approach on really helping people that need help,” said CHCC vice president Natalie Curtis, who has a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation studies and minor in substance use, and has attended several task force meetings.

Making a case for safe consumption

Kris Nyrop, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program national support director at PDA, on Wednesday night compared the heroin opioid crisis facing the country today with the HIV and AIDS epidemic of the late 80s and 90s. More than 48,000 people died from AIDS in 1995, he said, while 47,000 in the United States died from drug overdoses in 2016.

What prevented Seattle from incurring the amount of AIDS deaths during the height of the crisis, he said, were grassroots efforts to establish safe needle exchanges and condom distribution, which started with Dave Purchase in Tacoma back in 1988.

“Almost immediately the rest of the Northwest fell in line,” Nykrop said, with Seattle starting a year later at Second and Pike. “We exchanged more needles in Seattle than New York City did, at a fraction of the population, and we avoided an HIV epidemic in Seattle and in Washington state that the rest of the country suffered.”

Before becoming a social worker with the Seattle Needle Exchange, Thea Oliphant-Wells was a homeless heroin addict in the 90s. She told audience members the services and support she found in Seattle were nonexistent in Bothell, where she sometimes lived with her family.

“For me, harm reduction was really the beginning of my recovery,” she said.

Having a place where people cared about her welfare and asked her questions about her goals in life outside of addiction was critical, Oliphant-Wells said.

“I drank and snorted coke, because I didn’t want to feel,” said Michael Roberts, who is eight years sober.

Roberts’ 19-year-old daughter, Amber, died from a heroin overdose on June 28, 2015, just down the hall from her mother and stepfather’s room, he said. His nonprofit, Ambers H.O.P.E. (Heroin, Opiate, Prevention and Education) started last year.

“By no means am I an expert,” Roberts said when expressing his support for safe consumption spaces. “I’m just a grieving father.”

Roberts recounted the experience of receiving a call from Amber’s stepfather the day she died.

“The only words I could really understand is, ‘She’s gone. Michael, she’s gone.” He had been planning to take his daughter to treatment later that day. “So I was 12 hours too late, and I live with that every day. … My two choices were either to join her or to fight for her.”

Roberts said drug prevention doesn’t always work, treatment isn’t always available, and people are not always ready to accept it when it is. Community Health Engagement Locations would bridge the gap, he said.

“I’m at the point where I can’t even count how many friends have died in the last six years alone,” said Lisa Carlson, director of Health and Women’s Initiatives and founder of Aurora Commons, a neighborhood center for those suffering from drug addiction and involved in the sex trade along Aurora Avenue in North Seattle. “These were people who didn’t want to be alone.”

A member of the Safe Consumption Spaces Coalition, Carlson said she lost four friends to drug overdoses in one day last month. Her hope is that more people will support CHELs as a means of showing kindness toward their neighbors on the streets and make them feel valued.

“I just really, really pray, truly every day, that my neighbors who are housed will start to offer kindness to my neighbors who are unhoused, and get behind SCSs quite frankly.”