Category: Addiction

From Medium: I Was a “Fun” Drunk. Until I Wasn’t.

This piece, which has been lightly edited for sexual content, originally appeared on Medium. It was inspired by the responses to Susan Orlean’s recent series of tweets about getting wasted, which were celebrated by thousands of people and featured the following day in a laudatory piece in the Washington Post.

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When I quit drinking, there was no one around to suggest that I didn’t have a problem.

My friends were gone. My family was distant. My world consisted of an elliptical path between the grocery store, the bus stop, and the 600 square feet of my apartment, full of dirty dishes and half-eaten pizzas and empty bottles shoved into suitcases in the closet in case anyone dropped by.

My drinking took me to that point. But it didn’t start that way. Instead, like many women in their 20s, I started drinking because I wanted to fit in — at work, where everyone seemed so much older and more sophisticated, and in my social circle, which came to consist mostly of other drinkers—women who could shut down the bar, take a guy home, and wipe away the hangover with a few Bloody Marys in the morning.

It wasn’t just that no one ever told me they thought I might have a drinking problem — my drinking, like that of many young women, was celebrated, and the more over-the-top my behavior was, the more “fun” people considered me to be. I remember one night, out at a dive bar called the Jade Pagoda, when I danced on a table while my coworkers cheered, then made out with one of those coworkers on that same table while they cheered some more. What I learned from that experience, and from countless others, was that people liked me more when I was drunk and “fun.” For years, I took the lesson to heart.

I was fun. Until I wasn’t.

The parameters of acceptable femininity are wide enough to accommodate women who have “funny” meltdowns or who take their tops off or who sleep through Sundays. They don’t have room for women who lash out when they’re drunk, or who wonder whether they really gave their consent, or who say, in so many words: “This isn’t fun. Stop clapping. I need help.”

In all that time, no one ever suggested that I might consider taking a break from drinking. Why would they? Women who act out in a certain way — by being a certain acceptable type of “messy,” the type that isn’t too picky about men’s behavior and cracks jokes about her drinking (“Drinking problem” always worked when I spilled my cocktail) and laughs uproariously — are celebrated. Everyone loves a “fun” girl, a “cool” mom, a “wacky” older lady with a martini in hand. (Note that these parameters are not just gendered but aged — a 60-year-old throwing herself at young men is seen as pathetic, while a “wine mommy” who heads out to the bar while her husband takes care of the kid is irresponsible; why isn’t she celebrating “wine o’clock” at home?).

The parameters of acceptable femininity are wide enough to accommodate women who have “funny” meltdowns or who take their tops off or who sleep through Sundays. They don’t have room for women who lash out when they’re drunk, or who wonder whether they really gave their consent, or who say, in so many words: “This isn’t fun. Stop clapping. I need help.”

Women who fall into addiction — a neurological, psychological, and physical brain disorder that many people still consider the result of personal failings — are not celebrated. Strangers don’t show up to cheer when you pass out on the sidewalk, or check yourself into treatment, or say “I need help,” although addictions that lead to these behaviors tend to start benignly, with the kind of drinking women are socially permitted to do.

I thought about all this when celebrated writer Susan Orlean posted a series of increasingly incoherent tweets on Friday night, in which she acknowledged being “falling-down drunk,” embarrassing her husband in front of their neighbors, and apparently infuriating her family. “I am@being shunned by my family because I am drunk. Yes ok I am fine with that FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCKERS,” she wrote. As I write this, the most recent responses — of thousands in this vein — are “Cheers to you!! This is definitely not the right time to be sober(within reason)I’m having a few with you!!,” “How wasn’t I following you until now? Best 2020 Friday night entertainment” and “Hey Family, leave her alone! Let the girl drink and tweet! 😜. Got your back”

These people piling praise onto a celebrity’s timeline are ostensibly “celebrating” Orlean for “living her best life,” as many of them put it. But in reality, they’re projecting a narrative that’s as American as Lucille Ball.

We celebrate women — particularly famous women — when they embarrass themselves, or get falling-down-drunk, or go on harmless-seeming tirades against their families. “No one on my house is talking to me right now ok!! YeH whatever I hzte you too.” We stop celebrating them when their behavior tips over into problematic territory — when Britney shaves her head, or Lindsay passes out in her Mercedes. Being a “fun” drunk is a trap, but you won’t know that until you get down off the bar, or stop live-tweeting your life like it’s a sitcom, or say something publicly that’s just a no-two-ways-about-it bummer, like expressing shame, helplessness, or regret. Watch how fast the crowds dissipate then.

Read the rest of this essay on Medium.

Launch Day for QUITTER, My Memoir about Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery!

My book Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery (Viking), is finally out and available on Amazon, at your local independent bookstore, and everywhere else books are sold! (Eventually, when we all have access to libraries again, it will be available at your local library as well). You can buy Quitter in hardcover, electronic, or audio form—and if you buy from Elliott Bay Book Company, which sponsored my virtual book launch at Town Hall late last month, there’s a very good chance you can snag a signed copy! (I’m signing them tomorrow, so I suggest jumping on this one)

If you don’t follow me on Twitter or Facebook (or haven’t read my posts about the book here), Quitter is a memoir about my experiences drinking, relapsing, and eventually finding recovery after years running the gauntlet of the treatment industry.

Quitter is an unusual recovery memoir—one that rejects tropes like “rock bottom” and talks bluntly and unflinchingly about relapse as part of recovery. I went through many rock bottoms, and more relapses than I can now count, before checking myself into detox for the last time in February of 2015. My story isn’t the kind of story we’re used to hearing about women who get sober, although it’s more typical than you might think—my drinking was ugly and messy and made me impossible to be around, and it took me a long time to get where I am today: Happy and stable and glad to be more than five years removed from the time when my addiction was spinning me out of control.
Claire Dederer, the author of Love and Trouble, called the book “relentless” in its portrayal of relapse and the grim work of maintaining a late-stage addiction when she interviewed me at my book launch event. But my story is also a hopeful one, because every time I relapsed, I learned more about myself and the deadly brain disease that is addiction, until I was finally able to cobble together my own version of recovery.
Buy Quitter, tell a friend about it, and share photos and thoughts about the book on social media using the hashtag #QuitterBook. And keep an eye on this site, on Twitter, and on my Press and Events pages for info about upcoming events, interviews, podcast, TV, and radio appearances, and much more!

Homelessness Report Highlights Inequities, Growth In Chronic Homelessness In King County

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

Last year, when King County’s “point-in-time count” of the homeless population indicated a slight dip in the number of people counted in the shelters and on the streets, Mayor Jenny Durkan celebrated the news, crediting the city’s work adding shelter and expanding the Navigation Team, among other actions, for the apparent 5 percent decline in unsheltered homelessness. Three-quarters of that decline was attributed in the report itself to the redefinition of “shelter” to include tiny house village encampments, which moved a number of people from the “unsheltered” to the “sheltered” column even though their living situation stayed the same.

This year’s one-night count showed a slight increase in both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness throughout King County, with the biggest increases in Seattle and Southwest King County. The new total estimate of 11,751 people experiencing homelessness represents a five percent increase over last year. A separate survey, which had fewer participants than in previous years, provided demographic data and information about why people became homeless, information that the county’s “Count Us In” report extrapolates across the entire homeless population.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before.

The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Now for the caveats. Every point-in-time count is just that—a count of how many people volunteers were able to identify on a specific night in January, a time when the number of people seeking shelter is higher and when the number sleeping outdoors fluctuates widely based on the weather. The night of the count, January 24, was extraordinarily rainy, with 1.14 inches of rain compared to no rain the previous year. Probably as a consequence, the number of people found living in abandoned buildings increased dramatically, from 140 to 662; the report notes that “The combined totals (of abandoned building count and street/outside count) are notably similar across the years.

Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.

The number of people counted also depends, in part, on the number of people walking and driving around the county and counting them. This year, about half as many volunteers showed up for the count as did in 2019, and about 25 fewer guides with lived experience of homelessness. The report attributes this decline to the weather and a shooting downtown that occurred less than two days before the count.

Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.

Another factor that makes the January count an incomplete guide to current homeless numbers is the fact that it took place before the COVID-19 crisis, which created unprecedented unemployment throughout the region. Data from the county’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) shows a steady increase in the number of people seeking homeless services through the end of March, when 13,238 households (which can include multiple people) sought services, a 29 percent increase over January. Losing a job is the most common reason survey respondents gave for becoming homeless (16 percent); another 8 percent said they became homeless because they couldn’t afford their rent. 

“Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.” — Colleen Echohawk, Chief Seattle Club

The county could not offer HMIS data after March, but the numbers are likely to increase substantially—especially after moratoriums expire. Leo Flor, the director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, said Wednesday that “rent-burdened” households—renters who struggle to pay rent from month to month—will be hit especially hard by both the economic downturn and the eventual termination of financial assistance that is currently helping them make ends meet.

“If that assistance were to cease” in the absence of replacement income, “we would see a lot of additional people moving from rent-burdened to homelessness.” In other words: If people who are living on cash or rent assistance (or not paying rent at all during the eviction moratorium) don’t find jobs by the time that income runs out, we’re going to see a lot more homeless people on our streets. This is supported by the fact that “losing a job” was the most common reason people reported becoming homeless, followed by alcohol or drug issues, mental health problems, and an inability to afford rent.

People sleeping outdoors or otherwise unsheltered increased in every part of King County except North and Southeast King County, with the largest percentage increases in Northeast King County (69 percent) and East King County (32 percent), followed by Seattle at 5 percent.

People who identified as Black made up 25 percent of people experiencing homelessness in the latest count, which uses numbers from a separate survey—this year, of 832 homeless adults and youth) to extrapolate demographic data across the entire homeless population. (The people conducting the one-night count do not approach people or note their apparent genders or races.) That’s a decline from last year’s number, 32 percent, but still extremely disproportionate in a county where Black people make up just 7 percent of the population.

The proportion of Native American/Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness, meanwhile, spiked from 10 to 15 percent of the people surveyed, and 32 percent of those experiencing chronic homelessness, a prevalence that’s 15 times higher than the number of Native people in the county. Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, attributed the increase to better data collection this year, including the fact that Native service providers have been increasingly involved in data collection. (Prior to last year, no Native organizations were involved in collecting data.)

“Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.” — King County DCHS Director Leo Flor 

“Because of our efforts to collect more accurate data related to American Indians and Alaska Natives experiencing homelessness, we believe we are getting closer to truly understanding the scope of the work ahead,” Echohawk said in a statement. “Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.”

King County’s survey also include a multi-race category, which dilutes the racial data.

This year’s report also shows dramatic increases in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness (from 2,451 to 3,743) and in the percentage of those individuals who were unsheltered (from 3 to 29 percent), along with an increase in the number of homeless individuals (70 percent of them women) fleeing domestic violence. The report attributes these upticks,  in part, to better data collection. But the number of women experiencing homelessness, both in general (41 percent) and in subcategories like youth (47 percent) and people living in vehicles (56 percent) suggests that the face of homelessness is increasingly female—a fact that doesn’t fit with the most common stereotypes about who becomes homeless and why. The report didn’t ask women and men separately why they became homeless, an oversight that makes it hard to extrapolate why women become homeless from this report.

The number of people who are chronically homeless (a group that is much more likely to be unsheltered than people who have been homeless for shorter periods) increased more than 52 percent this year, to 3,355, and the rate of reported psychiatric disorders also spiked sharply. (The term “chronically homeless” refers to a person who has been homeless for more than a year, or for more than four times in the last three years, and who suffers from a chronic physical or mental health condition, including serious mental illness or addiction or a physical disability.)

Flor, the DCHS director, noted Wednesday that the two trends are closely related. As the number of people experiencing long-term homelessness increases, he said, “we would expect that the number of psychiatric conditions would increase as well. Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.”

In her statement about this year’s results, Mayor Durkan emphasized the county’s move to a regional approach to homelessness rather than one centered on City of Seattle resources. “While many individuals[‘] last stable home was not in the City of Seattle, our city continues to serve the most vulnerable in our region,” Durkan said. “Our regional homelessness investments must include an immediate and direct response to any crisis of housing stability, connecting people with the services they need, in their community wherever they are across the county.”

After the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness ended in 2015 (a year that, like previous years and all the ones since, ended with more people experiencing homelessness than ever), cities, counties, and service providers should be adopted the mantra that homelessness should be “brief, one-time, and rare.” This year, not only did the rate of chronic, long-terms homelessness increase, so did the percentage of survey respondents who said they had been homeless for one year or more.

Seattle has tried focusing on “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers, pivoting to heavy investments in emergency shelter, and now joining forces with the county and suburban cities to try to agree on a single regional solution to homelessness. Perhaps next year’s count will begin to reveal whether this latest shift will actually yield results.

I Quit Drinking. Suddenly, Alcohol Was Everywhere.

From marketing phrase to actual wine.

This is the first in an occasional series of essays about my experience as a person in recovery. If you came her looking for local news only, scroll up or down and you’ll find it.

It’s easy to laugh, in 2020, about people who drank the fizzy malt beverage Zima in the ’90s, and harder to remember how heavily Zima was marketed to young people as a lighter, sparklier alternative to beer — literally, clear beer.

Read the rest of this post at Medium.

Read an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, and preorder your copy here.

This Sunday: Virtual Book Launch for Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery!

Virtual Book Launch at Town Hall Seattle in partnership with Elliott Bay Books 

Sunday, June 28, 6pm PST/9pm ET

Join me and Claire Dederer, the Seattle-based author of the memoir Love and Trouble, at 6pm PST on Sunday, June 28 for the livestreamed launch of my book Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, in partnership with Town Hall Seattle and Elliott Bay Books.

Our conversation will be followed by a live Q&A where you can ask me about the topics I discuss in the book, including relapse, the treatment industry, how sobriety changed my outlook on life and work, why “rock bottom” is a lie, how I escaped the implosion of local media, getting beyond shame, and more.

All books purchased through the ticketing link will be signed by me, so grab a copy of the book and reserve your (free) spot now!

Town Hall will also be streaming this event live on their Facebook page.

Read more about Quitter, including advance praise, a synopsis, and a link to an excerpt, here.4

My Book, Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, Comes Out In One Month! Preorder Now, Get It July 7

My book, Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, hits stores on July 7. If you’re interested in reading a book that rejects conventional narratives of addiction and recovery, learning more about why people keep drinking or using drugs even when it’s obvious that they should “just quit,” or learning more about why relapse is such a common part of recovery, preorder Quitter now. In the book, I write about: 

• How my own experience with addiction informs my work as a y journalist who writes about the intersection of homelessness and addiction. I know that no one living on the street in squalid, deplorable conditions woke up one morning and decided they wanted to live that way. No one chooses to be addicted.

• The ways in which the concept of “rock bottom” is a (useful) myth. We like to believe in rock bottom because it gives us a goal and an end point—if a loved one is addicted, then all we have to do is wait for them to hit rock bottom and things will start to improve. But my story, as well as those of countless others, shows that there is no true “rock bottom,” except death.

• Relapse, not as failure, but as a learning experience and an integral part of most people’s story. It’s comforting to believe that the story of addiction is a straight line: From addiction to rock bottom to recovery. But most people don’t “get it” in one shot. The treatment and recovery industry has not sufficiently grappled with this fact, and misleads people struggling with addiction (and their families) by promising recovery without teaching people how to handle relapse.

• What it was like coming of age in the early ’90s and working in the male-dominated alt-weekly world through the last gasps of its heyday, before jumping ship in the late 2000s to start a career as an online journalist that led to the site you’re reading now.

“Journalist Barnett debuts with an intense account of her alcoholism, denial, and, ultimately, redemption. . . . Barnett’s snappy prose carries the reader through several rounds of rehab before the final one sticks, pulling no punches as she goes. Emotionally devastating and self-aware, this cautionary tale about substance abuse is a worthy heir to Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life.”” —Publisher’s Weekly, starred review

Book description:

A startlingly frank memoir of one woman’s struggles with alcoholism and recovery, with essential new insights into addiction and treatment

Erica C. Barnett had her first sip of alcohol when she was thirteen, and she quickly developed a taste for drinking to oblivion with her friends. In her late twenties, her addiction became inescapable. Volatile relationships, blackouts, and unsuccessful stints in detox defined her life, with the vodka bottles she hid throughout her apartment and offices acting as both her tormentors and closest friends.

By the time she was in her late thirties, Erica Barnett had run the gauntlet of alcoholism. She had recovered and relapsed time and again, but after each new program or detox center would find herself far from rehabilitated. “Rock bottom,” Barnett writes, “is a lie.” It is always possible, she learned, to go lower than your lowest point. She found that the terms other alcoholics used to describe the trajectory of their addiction–“rock bottom” and “moment of clarity”–and the mottos touted by Alcoholics Anonymous, such as “let go and let God” and “you’re only as sick as your secrets”–didn’t correspond to her experience and could actually be detrimental.

With remarkably brave and vulnerable writing, Barnett expands on her personal story to confront the dire state of addiction in America, the rise of alcoholism in American women in the last century, and the lack of rehabilitation options available to addicts. At a time when opioid addiction is a national epidemic and one in twelve Americans suffers from alcohol abuse disorder, Quitter is essential reading for our age and an ultimately hopeful story of Barnett’s own hard-fought path to sobriety.

“A beautifully told story of one woman’s descent into darkness; a rigorously researched exploration of the causes and treatments of alcohol abuse; a furious howl of pain. Erica C. Barnett has written a female story of addiction that moves beyond clichés and accepted truths. I loved this book, in all its raging glory.”—Claire Dederer, author of Love and Trouble

Reviews

“Journalist Barnett debuts with an intense account of her alcoholism, denial, and, ultimately, redemption. . . . Barnett’s snappy prose carries the reader through several rounds of rehab before the final one sticks, pulling no punches as she goes. Barnett doesn’t skimp on her life’s lows (she goes to an interview drunk, and shoplifts wine) of how her ever-worsening problem caused her to lose her health, her job, and many of her friends, and alienate her family. . . . Emotionally devastating and self-aware, this cautionary tale about substance abuse is a worthy heir to Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A Seattle-based political reporter recounts her tumultuous, nearly deadly dance with the bottle. . . . Barnett rises to the challenge with a witty, self-deprecating, sometimes snide voice. . . . If you’re in the mood for a well-written, relatable, rock-bottom recovery memoir, this will hit the spot.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“I can’t think of another memoir that captures the nightmare of drinking relapse like this one. Erica Barnett’s tale is brutal, maddening, and beautiful. Quitter will give hope to anyone afraid they can’t ever get this thing. Hang in there. You just might.”
—Sarah Hepola, New York Times bestselling author of Blackout

“[Barnett] paints a grotesque portrait of the horror show that is alcoholism with great skill and style. I tore through this book.”
—Cat Marnell, New York Times bestselling author of How to Murder Your Life

“Barnett writes with seismic clarity on the baffling nature of the early morning vodka trip and the anguish and relief it produces in equal measure.” — Erin Lee Carr, author of All That You Leave Behind; director of I Love You, Now Die and At the Heart of Gold

“Quitter is all these things: a beautifully told story of one woman’s descent into darkness; a rigorously researched exploration of the causes and treatments of alcohol abuse; a furious howl of pain. Erica C. Barnett has written a female story of addiction that moves beyond clichés and accepted truths. I loved this book, in all its raging glory.”
—Claire Dederer, author of Love and Trouble

“Barnett writes with seismic clarity on the baffling nature of the early morning vodka trip and the anguish and relief it produces in equal measure. This book understands what it is like to fail but have that last bit of hope. Remarkable writing on a disease that effects so many. Quitter is the new manual for those seeking a recovered life.”
—Erin Lee Carr, author of All That You Leave Behind; director of I Love You, Now Die and At the Heart of Gold

“Erica Barnett’s Quitter is a harrowing, deeply truthful account of her long journey through alcoholism and repeated relapse—an addiction consequence so common that Barnett calls it ‘almost inevitable,’ yet one to which most treatment methodologies pay scant attention. Barnett doesn’t flinch in showing the impact of her ever-worsening relapses on her health, career, and even her most steadfast relationships, and she holds herself to account while also making it clear how the treatment system failed her. In addition to being a riveting, suspenseful read, Quitter will also start important conversations about how addicts can best be helped at all stages of the recovery cycle. An essential addition to literature of addiction.”
—Kristi Coulter, author of Nothing Good Can Come From This

“Erica Barnett’s Quitter is an impeccably researched, long-overdue examination of America’s billion-dollar addiction industry and its decidedly mixed record of success. Drawing from her own painful experience in countless hospitals, rehabs and treatment centers, Barnett bravely tackles the limitations and sacred cows of the 12-step-movement while also acknowledging the vital role it has played in rescuing thousands of addicts and alcoholics from desperate cycles of despair. In her hard-won quest for sobriety she discovers that it’s possible for even the most hopeless addicts to recover if they are willing to give up pre-conceived notions about what recovery looks like and how to get there.”
—Maer Roshan, author of Courtney Comes Clean

Using Private Funding, King County Provides Alcohol and Cigarettes to Patients at Isolation Sites

Beer, Mug, Refreshment, Beer Mug, Drink, Bavaria
Image via Pixabay.

King County has been providing alcohol, tobacco, and, until two weeks ago, cannabis products to some patients with diagnosed or potential COVID-19 infections who are staying at the county’s isolation/quarantine and assessment/recovery sites, The C is for Crank has learned. These sites serve people who are homeless or who cannot isolate safely at home.

The program, which is not funded through public dollars, is similar to efforts in other cities, including San Francisco, to enable patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus to remain isolated safely while mitigating or preventing withdrawal symptoms.

“Limited and controlled quantities of alcohol and nicotine have been provided by the health and behavioral health clinicians on site as part of clinical management of withdrawal symptoms and harm reduction practices to support patients to safely stay in isolation,” Department of Human and Community Services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton says. “In all cases, this clinical review and approval for a requested item is required.”

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before.

The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

While programs like King County’s have been controversial in other cities, they are based in the principles of harm reduction, a set of strategies at reducing the negative consequences of drug and alcohol use. Other examples of harm reduction include methadone clinics, needle exchanges, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s 1811 Eastlake project—not to mention things like nicotine gum and marijuana as an alternative to heroin.

Hamilton did not say how many people had received alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis products, but said that the department’s director, Leo Flor, has been paying for these items out of his own pocket while the county secures “private foundation funding as a more sustainable approach to funding moving forward.” It’s illegal to spend public funds on alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana. Hamilton was not able to immediately provide details about how much these “initial harm reduction supplies” had cost.

Providing people with substances they would otherwise seek out makes it easier to keep people from spreading COVID-19 in the community surrounding the county’s quarantine and isolation sites, and makes it more likely that people will stay at those sites for their entire isolation period instead of leaving against medical advice. In the case of alcohol, it also may be saving lives—for heavy, daily drinkers, withdrawing from alcohol without specialized medical intervention can cause seizures, heart failure, and death.

“For those who cannot do so, or who do not have a home, the County has created isolation and recovery sites,” Hamilton said. “We try to keep guests safe, stable and comfortable so they will stay the entire time, and harm reduction is one strategy that helps to achieve that goal for some of our guests.”

I have asked for more details about funding for this program, including how much DCHS director Flor has spent out of his own pocket, and will update this post when I learn more.

Hotel-Based Intervention Program Will Expand to Serve Seattle’s Homeless Population

Tents line a street in the International District on Saturday, May 9, 2020.

The Durkan Administration, which has been reluctant to spend city resources putting homeless people in hotels, has signed off on the expansion of the Public Defender Association’s new Co-LEAD program, which provides hotel rooms, case management, food, cell phones, and other necessities to people experiencing homelessness in King County, to include the city of Seattle. Co-LEAD is an expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, a pre-arrest diversion program for people involved in low-level criminal activity, and is aimed at reducing criminal activity at a time when legal options for making money are scarce and setting clients up for success once the immediate threat of COVID-19 has passed.

Co-LEAD started last month in Burien, where LEAD partnered with local police to identify people living in parks without access to basics like food and toilets, and now serves people exiting the King County Jail system. The program has secured about 50 hotel rooms in three cities, including Seattle.

The PDA had hoped to offer Co-LEAD as an option to people living at the Commons, but were unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp was removed.

The program targets people who need case management and who are also at risk of ending up in jail without intervention—people like those who were living at the Ballard Commons, where the city removed a large encampment two weeks ago. Participants get temporary hotel rooms, access to gift cards for basic needs, help with housing searches, and physical and behavioral health care through an in-house provider.

One goal of the program is getting people connected to services. Another is simply getting them through the COVID-19 crisis—something that’s hard enough to do in a private house, much less a crowded shelter with limited or no access to entertainment . Something as simple as access to television can make a huge difference in a person’s mental health during lockdown, PDA director Lisa Daugaard says. “There’s no question that that’s  a stress alleviation tool that we’re all using right now,” and it’s especially helpful “for people with anxiety and certain mental conditions that respond well to distraction,” Daugaard said. 

The program isn’t meant to be long-term, nor is it for everyone—a misconception that LEAD has had to combat in Burien, where word of mouth created excess demand for the program.

“It’s not a come-one, come-all program—it needs to have a targeted population,” said PDA deputy director Jesse Benet, who set up Co-LEAD over three weeks. “The whole goal is to get people to shelter in place in hotels, to support them while trying to figure out a longer-term plan.” For example, Co-LEAD case managers might help people get their federal stimulus checks, connect them with medical care and treatment programs, and getting them back on Apple Health, the state’s Medicaid program, Benet said. 

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

The PDA had hoped to offer Co-LEAD as an option to people living at the Commons, but were unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp—which had been a target of frequent neighborhood complaints, an online petition, and a sensationalistic story on KOMO TV—was swept. However, the city did agree last week to partner with the program in the future, which could lead to hotel room placements for some of those living in crowded outdoor conditions in Pioneer Square or near the Navigation Center in the International District, where a large encampment now stretches along the length of S. Weller St. 

Many homeless service providers and advocates have pushed for hotels as an alternative to crowded shelters at a time when COVID continues to spread rapidly in the community. But they’ve also started asking what comes next. Providers have long argued that crowded shelters are inhumane as a long-term solution to homelessness, but the Seattle area has failed to invest in sufficient housing to get its 12,000-plus homeless residents out of shelters and off the streets. Hotels could be part of the solution.

Certain aspects of a hotel-based approach to homelessness would have to be worked out, including which hotels, how they’d be funded, and who would work there (regular hotel staff? Homeless service providers? A combination of both?) But Daugaard says she can imagine a future in which governments fund hotels as a interim step between homelessness and housing even after the immediate COVID emergency is over. “Hotels, to me, are the game-changer,” Daugaard said. “In a landscape where a pure lack of units is the main barrier to a housing-first strategy for alleviating mass homelessness, suddenly there may be much closer to enough units, at least as a bridge to a more permanent plan,” while potentially helping hotels and hotel workers as well.

The Seattle City Council will get an overview of the Co-LEAD program at its 9:30 am briefings meeting tomorrow.

LEAD Pivots to Focus on Jail Releases, King County Outlines Behavioral Health Strategy for COVID Isolation Sites

Partitions between beds at the county’s COVID-19 isolation and recovery site in Shoreline.

1. The Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which in normal times is a program that keeps low-level offenders out of jail by providing case management and connections to services, has pivoted during the COVID epidemic to focus on people who are being let out of King County jails to prevent overcrowding and who have few social supports or legal sources of income. The Co-LEAD Program, PDA director Lisa Daugaard says, is “starting with people who were released in the wave of jail releases and are not doing very well, which is, of course, totally predictable.” The program is also accepting referrals from prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement—”people who in normal days might be subject to arrest but that is completely off the table,” Daugaard said.

With job opportunities virtually nonexistent (and work release shut down for the foreseeable future), Daugaard says property crime has risen in some areas. “For a lot of people without any means of support, what’s the option?” she says. “There’s got to be some strategy for people to take care of their basic needs when there is no way to earn money. That is the bottom line for a lot of folks.”

The Co-LEAD program, which launched this week in Burien, is providing former jail inmates with access to hotel rooms, gift cards, and crisis intervention. So far, the PDA has reserved about 25 rooms in hotels along the I-5 corridor and “we plan on scaling that up rapidly.”

If you’re wondering where LEAD is getting the money to do all this—wasn’t the mayor still withholding their 2020 funding and refusing to sign a contract until LEAD met a long list of conditions?—the answer is that the city finally signed the contract and released LEAD’s full 2020 funding in late March, after the COVID epidemic hit. “We finally executed the contract for the total amount of funding and immediately the world is different,” Daugaard says.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

2. King County is opening hundreds of hotel rooms and field hospital beds for shelter residents and for those in isolation or quarantine who have (or may have) COVID-19 and have no safe place to isolate or recover. One question that has come up both tacitly and explicitly, in Seattle and in other cities with large homeless populations, is what happens when someone needs crisis intervention or help managing their active addiction.

Both Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan and San Francisco Mayor London Breed have suggested that it would be prohibitively expensive, for example, for cities to rent out large blocks of hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, because they would have to be heavily staffed by care workers—workers who would need to be trained, it is implied, to intervene at a moment’s notice when homeless clients act out, attempt to destroy hotel property, or try to leave.

“It’s a scary, isolating, confusing, lengthy process, so everybody who we’ve put in these rooms has needed behavioral health care at one time or another. On day 7, after you’ve been in a hotel for that long, just human contact is important.”—King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division director Kelli Nomura

Kelli Nomura, the director of King County’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, says the county has not had to ask anyone to leave any of its quarantine, isolation, and recovery centers, which, as of Sunday, will include a 140-bed field hospital in Shoreline. The county is connecting people to their existing providers when they have them, and providing behavioral health and addiction management services through its King County Integrated Care Network if they don’t.

“Everyone who’s going into these facilities is needing some level of behavioral health support,” including people who aren’t homeless, Nomura says. “It’s a scary, isolating, confusing, lengthy process, so everybody who we’ve put in these rooms has needed behavioral health care at one time or another. On day 7, after you’ve been in a hotel for that long, just human contact is important.”

Nomura says there have been instances when someone with a severe, persistent mental health disorder has had an acute episode, or when people who are actively using drugs or drinking have needed immediate help managing withdrawal symptoms. When that happens, she says, behavioral health staff either connect them by phone with their existing provider or “just step in and do that crisis intervention ourselves. … We have been deescalating, doing motivational interviewing, and you might have to go into on site” to go into a person’s room and intervene, she says.

The county is reserving beds at its isolation and quarantine site on Aurora Ave. N, which includes 23 units in modular buildings, for people who need daily methadone dosing, Nomura says, but opiate users who take Suboxone (buprenorphine) to manage their addictions can fill their prescriptions or get a new one at the other sites.

As of tomorrow, the county will have opened just over 400 units in isolation, quarantine, and recovery sites, including the 140 beds opening in Shoreline on Sunday. Department of Community and Human Services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton says additional sites at Eastgate in Bellevue and in White Center will be ready later this month; an additional site in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, which was initially planned as an isolation and quarantine location, may instead be used as an expansion site for the city’s still-overcrowded shelters.

Temporary Sobering Center Opens, Private Security Firm Paid $30,000 a Week to Patrol Two Shelters, Sawant Loses Battle Over the Narrative, and More

New portable toilets and hand-washing station at Ballard Commons park.

1. Recovery Cafe, an organization that helps homeless and formerly homeless people recover from trauma and addiction, has  found a new purpose during the COVID epidemic: Serving as a temporary sobering center for people experiencing homelessness who have significant drug or alcohol issues who have no safe place to “sleep it off.” The organization’s building in SoDo, which has been closed since mid-March, reopened with 20 beds last night, and will expand to 40 beds, and 24/7 operations, later this month. Pioneer Human Services will operate the center.

Sherry Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Human and Community Services, emphasized that new location will not be a permanent replacement for the SoDo facility that closed last year and has only partially been replaced, by a temporary, nighttime-only facility with limited medical services in a county-owned building at Fourth and Jefferson. Opening up space in that location will allow the county to “further deintensify” the shelter it runs in the same building, Hamilton says.

A proposed replacement in Georgetown was shot down after neighbors sued, and the county still has not located a site for a permanent new facility.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104.

Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Sobering centers are meant to reduce pressure on local emergency rooms—a role that’s more critical now than at any time in recent history. Hamilton says that once the Recovery Cafe space ramps up, the operator, Pioneer Human Services, will be able to “engage them in services” in a way that isn’t possible when people have to leave at 7am. “The hard part about it being night-only is that they come in, they’re inebriated, they wake up in the morning, and they leave,” Hamilton says. “You haven’t had the time to work with them and engage them in buprenorphine [a medication that treats opiate addiction] or detox and treatment.”

The Seattle region is experiencing a shortage of available behavioral health care workers equipped to treat people with severe mental health and substance use disorders in shelters and COVID isolation, quarantine, and recovery units. I’ll be posting an update on what the county is doing to staff these facilities with behavioral health care workers (and ensure that people engaged in medication-assisted treatment can access their methadone or buprenorphine) later this week.

The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at both shelters around the clock. The shelters each serve 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from existing shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. I’ve been hammering away for weeks at the fact that the city does not have sufficient restrooms and handwashing facilities for the thousands of homeless people who live on its streets. As I’ve documented in story after story (and on a crowdsourced map I created last month), many of the restrooms that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office initially claimed are open are actually closed, including restrooms in parks, at community centers, and at playgrounds in every corner of the city. 

This may be finally be changing, however. Durkan’s office reportedly directed the Parks department to open most of the dozens of restrooms that had been locked by yesterday, April 6. Over the weekend, I visited a few parks restrooms in my neighborhood and found that one that had been closed the last time I visited was open, although a “closed” sign was still taped to the door and the restroom itself was filthy and covered with standing water. Readers reported that several other restrooms on the map that had been marked as “closed” were now open.

The mayor’s office is also working to create an interactive map with the locations of restrooms that are currently open. It’s unclear how this will differ from the interactive map the city rolled out in 2018, which showed a much smaller number of restrooms than the 128 the mayor’s office initially claimed were open.

The council’s special committee on homelessness will hold a special, previously unannounced meeting this Wednesday at 10am. The only item on the agenda: “Presentation on the City’s efforts to provide additional hygiene facilities.”

3. Two restrooms on the city’s map that are not currently open are the ones at Garfield Community Center and Miller Community Center, which are serving as “de-intensification” sites for 100 existing shelter beds. Both sites are staffed by Parks Department employees and are patrolled around the clock by private security officers. The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at each building 24/7, or $90 an hour. Each shelter serves 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from other shelters during the pandemic. 

According to Parks spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, “staffing for these centers is a mixture of shelter staff and recreation staff—with many working in a shelter setting for the first time. Providing security at these facilities through a trained and prepared contractor, supports our ability to stand up a shelter in relatively short order and through reassignment of City employees.”

“I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant.” -Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

4. City council members squabbled Monday over two efforts by council member Kshama Sawant to control the narrative in the council’s virtual chambers—a harder task than usual, now that she is unable to organize physical “Pack City Hall!” rallies at city hall. First, Sawant tried and failed to introduce a proposal that would allow people to give virtual public testimony on any subject related to the COVID-19 epidemic, a sharp departure from standing council rules that require public commenters to speak to items on the agenda.

After that effort failed—”we need to have some semblance of order when it comes to council business,” council president Lorena Gonzalez said—Sawant tried to introduce her “Tax Amazon” legislation, which would now provide direct monthly payments to 100,000 Seattle residents, into the sustainability and renters’ rights committee, which she chairs and which her co-sponsor Tammy Morales co-chairs. Bills about taxation typically go through the council’s finance committee, which, unlike the smaller standing committees, includes all nine council members.

“If we really support the movement that has been fighting for this, I believe that it should be a committee that is chaired by me and Council Member Morales or a select committee that is being chaired by me,” Sawant said. “The only entity that is being undercut by all this is the movement itself.” Sawant then questioned Gonzalez’ motivation in wanting the bill to go through the finance committee.

Lisa Herbold, a Sawant ally on some issues, responded that the council had passed both the previous head tax and the 2017 high earners’ income tax through the finance committee, under former council members Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess, respectively. “I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant,” she said. “Particularly in this crisis, I don’t think it’s helpful to promote that divisive approach to how the council does its business.”

Sawant’s proposal died for lack of a second, and Morales made a proposal to move the tax plan into the finance committee, which passed.