Harm Reduction Advocates Urge Safe Consumption Pilot at New Homeless Center

via Sally Bagshaw/seattle.gov
via Sally Bagshaw/seattle.gov

The Public Defender Association has responded to the city’s proposal to build a San Francisco-style, low-barrier drop-in center and temporary shelter for homeless individuals and couples with a letter questioning whether the proposed center will coordinate with “existing approaches to prioritizing permanent housing,” and arguing that it should include harm reduction services for drug and alcohol users, possibly including a “wet space” for drinkers and a safe consumption site for people who shoot, snort, or smoke illegal drugs. The letter also suggests that the Navigation Center should be not just one centrally located clearinghouse for services, but several sites distributed throughout the city, to mitigate the impact on a single neighborhood.

“While this is not inappropriate and may be unavoidable, to prevent negative reactions from the particular neighborhood where a Navigation Center is located, multiple centers operating simultaneously in different locations would seem a promising way to diffuse the feeling that one neighborhood is being adversely affected,” the letter says.

The PDA, a longtime partner with the city on the downtown Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program that aims to keep people who commit low-level drug crimes out of jail and in contact with service providers, was apparently blindsided by the Navigation Center proposal, which was not planned in coordination with the many groups working to implement “housing first” and harm-reduction strategies to help people experiencing long-term homelessness and addiction in Seattle. 

“[W]e are not per se adverse to the idea of reconsidering current prioritization processes in order to ensure that people get housing who otherwise are fated to be camping outdoors long-term,” the letter says. “That said, we are very mindful that many of our colleagues have been hard at work through the All Home-led Coordinated Entry process to build a prioritization system for homeless individuals, and believe it is essential to understand early in the planning process how the Navigation Center(s) will or won’t be harmonized with that process in allocating permanent housing.”

Mayor Ed Murray’s spokesman, Jason Kelly, says what makes the Navigation Center model so successful in San Francisco is that it “has fewer preconditions for entry than other types of shelters.” Exactly what those preconditions will look like in Seattle, Kelly says, “is something that the new workgroup established under the mayor’s executive order will need to define over the next 60 days.”

One thing that is clear about the proposed Seattle Navigation Center is that it, like the center it’s modeled after in San Francisco, would not allow visitors or residents to consume alcohol or drugs on the premises, although they could come in drunk or loaded—a setup that’s virtually guaranteed to increase public drug and alcohol use in the surrounding neighborhood. To combat that inevitability, the PDA is also asking the city to consider a “wet space” where people could drink, as well as a safe consumption space where people could use illegal drugs—not just heroin, but drugs that are more commonly smoked or snorted, like meth and cocaine—under medical supervision, in or adjacent to the center. “Co-locating one of these pilot facilities in or adjacent to the Center could plan for and handle the predictable issue of drug use by the Center’s residents in a way that satisfies the surrounding neighborhood(s),” the letter says.

Patricia Sully, a PDA staff attorney and coordinator for VOCAL-WA,  a community group of people impacted by drug policy that advocates for safe consumption spaces, says, “It’s really important that people be able to maintain that connection [to services] and not be kicked back out onto the street” to consume drugs and alcohol illegally and less safely. “And from a community standpoint, that’s better as well. … Research has indicated that supervised consumption spaces decrease what frequently gets called ‘public nuisance behavior,’ like outdoor drug use” and shooting up in public restrooms.

Sully says she thinks the best approach, and the one the city and county may ultimately adopt, is a network of safe consumption spaces across the city that includes access to services and treatment options on-site. “We really believe it’s important that there be more than one, in part because we don’t have one centralized location where all the drug use is concentrated,” she says. “Instead, we see very diffuse drug use. We do want to mitigate the impact on neighborhoods, and [also] make sure that people are able to access this kind of service where they already are–that they’re not traveling across town to access that service.”

First, though, they’ll have to convince Murray and others who are open to the idea of safe consumption but become skittish when asked whether they support the PDA’s specific proposal. “As the workgroup conducts this work, it will need to weigh the fact that under federal law, facilities managers and site owners can be held responsible for the use of illegal drugs on their property” Kelly says. A more important question for the mayor’s office may be whether he’s willing to spend any more of his dwindling political capital on a promising but risky proposal that could put him in further conflict with neighborhoods that already mistrust him for his big-city views on development, transportation, and criminal justice.