Morning Crank: Bike Board Chair Abruptly Dismissed; Safe Seattle Sues; and More

Photo from 2015 Seattle Bike Master Plan Implementation Plan

1. Last month, about an hour before the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting, board chair Casey Gifford got a call from Evan Philip, the boards and commissions administrator for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office. Philip told Gifford that he was calling  to let her know that the meeting she was about to chair would be her final meeting—the mayor had decided not to reappoint her for a second term.  Then, Gifford recalls, he asked her if she had any questions.

Gifford, who works as a  planner with King County Metro and serves on the Cascade Bicycle Club board, was in shock. “I said that I was surprised to be receiving that information so close to the meeting and that I would need some time to process it,” she says. A few days later, she recounts, “I called him and left several voice mails” requesting a meeting or a phone call to discuss some questions she had about Durkan’s decision. Philip responded on November 16 with a terse email, explaining that “other Seattle residents had expressed interest in serving on this Commission and in the spirit of expanding civic engagement, we offered the position to another applicant.” In a subsequent email, he elaborated—sort of. “As mentioned earlier, the Mayor is committed to bringing in new voices and appoint those that have a lived experience to our Boards. As you may be aware, reappointment to a Board or Commission is not guaranteed.”

Like every mayor, Durkan is remaking the city’s bureaucracy, including the volunteer boards and commissions, in her own image.  But several advocates told me they’re worried that Durkan is pushing bike advocates affiliated with activist groups like Cascade and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways aside as part of a transportation agenda that prioritizes transit (and driving) over cycling. The mayor’s office denies this, and points out that Durkan appointed Cascade’s executive director, Richard Smith, to serve on the committee advising the mayor’s office on the Seattle Department of Transportation director selection.

Durkan’s new appointee, Selina Urena, is a former fundraiser for BikeWorks who now works for the Transportation Choices Coalition, a group whose former executive director, Shefali Ranganathan, is now deputy mayor. Urena was nominated by Durkan directly, without going through the usual application process, which includes one-on-one interviews with members of a bike board committee established explicitly for that purpose.  In an email responding to my questions about the mayor’s decision not to appoint Gifford, Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice said, of Urena (who uses they/them pronouns), “they are a multimodal transportation user and enjoys exploring the City by bike” and referred me to Urena’s TCC bio.

 “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.” – Casey Gifford, former Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board chair

Gifford says Philip never explained why Durkan did not reappoint her to the board, nor what he meant by “lived experience.” (Gifford is a young woman of color who uses a bike as her primary form of transportation.) She adds that in her experience, it’s unusual for the mayor’s office to take such a direct role in the appointment process, which usually involves an application and interview process with members of the board itself. “I know that the mayor’s office was more involved in the process than they ever have been in the past, and that they they knew who they wanted and pushed those people forward even without the recommendation of the board members who were reviewing apps with a set criteria and a set process,” Gifford said. “It didn’t sound like the mayor’s office was using those criteria, and it wasn’t really clear what criteria they were using.”

Gifford’s departure means that the bike board will be made up almost entirely of newcomers at a time when the fate of the city’s planned bicycle infrastructure is very much up in the air. Just one member, city council appointee Amanda Barnett, is continuing into a second term.  “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success,” Gifford says. “There are now seven of 12 [board members] that are brand new, and it takes a while to get up to speed on how the board works and how to be effective. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.”

Gifford may have another opportunity to serve on the board yet. City Council member Mike O’Brien, who says he considered the way Gifford was informed her term was ending “kind of unprofessional and not worthy of someone [Gifford] who’s doing really good work,” says he’ll nominate her himself if she wants to continue to serve. “It’s important to have new perspectives and new energy, but it’s also important to have some people who have been around,” O’Brien says. Gifford says she has talked to O’Brien about the possibility and that “it is something that I am considering.”

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2 .Safe Seattle, an online group that recently filed paperwork to become a 501(c)4 political nonprofit (via), is suing the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute to force the closure of a LIHI-operated “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, using many of the same arguments that a statewide anti-labor group, the Freedom Foundation, made when it filed a land use petition to to prevent the facility from opening back in June. (That case is still ongoing, although the Freedom Foundation itself is no longer a named plaintiff). The Freedom Foundation’s attorney, Richard Stephens, is representing Safe Seattle in the new lawsuit, which—like the earlier complaint—charges that LIHI does not have the correct permits to operate its encampment. Unlike the earlier, dismissed complaint, which claimed that LIHI’s encampment violated the city’s self-imposed limit of three transitional encampments at at time, this complaint claims that LIHI lacks both residential permits (on the grounds that the tiny houses are residences) and  a required encampment operations plan. The complaint also claims that the encampment constitutes an “assisted living facility” (on the grounds that LIHI provides housing and services to vulnerable people) for which it lacks a permit.

The amount of scrutiny that has landed on this one encampment—as well as the Freedom Foundation’s motivation for focusing on a single encampment in South Lake Union—is hard to explain. In addition to the lawsuits by the Freedom Foundation, Safe Seattle, and the individual plaintiffs (all represented by Stephens), a group called Unified Seattle has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads opposing tiny-house encampments, with an emphasis on the South Lake Union encampment.

3. A recent email from Queen Anne neighborhood activist Marty Kaplan, who has spent years locked in a legal battle to keep backyard and basement apartments out of single-family areas, included a telling line. After lavishing praise on the Seattle Times and its anti-density columnist Danny Westneat for joining him in the fight against missing-middle housing, Kaplan concluded: “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners.” Left out of Kaplan’s (and the Times’) equation? The majority of Seattle’s population, who rent their homes and are probably less concerned with “meeting the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners” than they are with being able to stay in a city where laws designed to boost homeowners’ property values are making the city unaffordable for everyone else.

Morning Crank: Isn’t It Weird That…

Image: Low-Income Housing Institute

As I head off on a brief writing retreat (back next Monday—although there may be some surprise posts while I’m gone!), I thought it would be a good time to dust off an old classic from my (and Josh’s) PubliCola days: Isn’t It Weird That?…

So: Isn’t It Weird That…

The Freedom Foundation—a group best known for suing to allow public-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues—is suddenly getting involved in a local land-use debate in Seattle?

The Olympia-based group is asking a judge to prevent the Low-Income Housing Institute from opening a “tiny house” encampment on a city-owned piece of property in South Lake Union on the grounds that its construction permit is invalid. The lawsuit claims the city of Seattle failed to do an adequate environmental review, failed to do sufficient outreach to surrounding neighbors, and isn’t allowed to authorize more than three encampments at one time under city law.

In the lawsuit, the Freedom Foundation claims it has standing to sue the city on the grounds that it generally represents the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.” (Somewhat) more specifically, the complaint charges that the encampment will harm the “quality of life in residing, working and owning property and businesses in the South Lake Union area… by encouraging loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area.”

When I asked Freedom Foundation spokesman Maxford Nelsen why a group that’s ordinarily focused on state-level labor policy is getting involved in Seattle politics at the micro-micro level of a temporary encampment for a few dozen homeless Seattleites,  he directed me to the attorney on the case, Richard Stephens. Stephens did not return a call for comment last week.

But Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI, contends that the city has the authority to approve additional encampments under the homelessness state of emergency, declared in 2015. Lee says LIHI is still operating under the assumption that the tiny house village will open on August 15. “We’re optimistic. We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter,” Lee says.

Speaking of LIHI,  Isn’t It Weird That…

Safe Seattle—a group of Seattle residents organized around the shared conviction that the city is a “shithole” overrun with “criminal vagrants” and carpeted with needles—is obsessed with Sharon Lee?  What’s weird isn’t that they oppose LIHI’s work to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing to homeless people, including those in active addiction—that’s right on brand for them. What’s weird is how often they complain, specifically, about her salary.

“I can’t believe she makes that much!” an SS member wrote recently. “That’s crazy $ for running a non-profit for the homeless. Is that part of what is referred to as the ‘homeless industrial complex’?”

Lee makes $195,237, plus $7,374 in other compensation. That’s a lot compared to what I make, and it may be more than what you make as well. But it’s not a lot compared to what the directors of other  Seattle nonprofit housing providers make. For example, here’s what four directors of roughly comparable groups take home in compensation, according to their 2016 IRS filings (available at guidestar.org):

• Gordon McHenry, president and CEO, Solid Ground: $183,026, plus $19,726 in other compensation

• Michael Rooney, executive director, Mount Baker Housing Association: $162,250, plus $12,694 in other compensation

•Bill Rumpf, president, Mercy Housing Northwest $206,530, plus $13,300 in other compensation

• Paul Lambros, Plymouth Housing: $188,465, plus $22,480 in other compensation.

And yet only one of those local nonprofit housing directors has regularly been referred to on Safe Seattle as a “poverty pimp,” a “Grifter level = 7,” and a “scammer.”

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any other women who run nonprofit housing organizations. That isn’t because there aren’t any. It’s because Lee is the only woman in her position locally* who makes a salary comparable to her male counterparts. (Even in the nonprofit world, women tend to get paid less than men for similar work). Weird that the one woman of color who makes a salary similar to men doing similar jobs is also the only one who’s routinely lambasted for making “too much.”

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Isn’t It Weird That... In the same week, in two liberal West Coast cities with booming economies and  growing homelessness crises, local news media ran extremely similar stories predicting that their city’s convention business would implode if the city didn’t crack down on its homeless population?

Now, I’m not suggesting any kind of direct cooperation between stations like KIRO-7 in Seattle (which recently provided obsessive, near-daily updates on an unsightly encampment across the street from its office) and, say, FOX News. But their sky-is-falling stories about convention center traffic this week did feature a number of common elements:

1. A representative from the local tourism board predicting that convention traffic is about to dry up, with no data-based evidence supporting this claim (or in the face of data that suggests the opposite). In the case of San Francisco,  one representative from the local tourism board claims that an anonymous large medical group has “canceled” a convention because an advance group showed up and was horrified by rampant homelessness and crime. That  quote made it into every headline I saw about the story despite the fact that what the group actually said, according to the tourism official, is that it will convene in San Francisco in 2018 and 2023, but may decide not to do so in the future. (The fact that this anonymous convention planner is also quoted as saying they plan to take their business to Los Angeles, a city with its own extremely visible homelessness crisis, suggests a number of obvious followup questions, such as: Are you aware that the LA Times refers to the homelessness situation in that city as a “Dickensian dystopia“?) In Seattle, a spokesman for Visit Seattle tells KIRO that “business may not always be so great,” citing no specific revenue trend or metric other than a general sense that  “our city is out of control.”

2. No quotes from secondary sources who aren’t directly engaged in lobbying the city on the public policy they’re talking about. The San Francisco story, in fact, is based on a single source—the head of the convention bureau, who has an obvious interest in suggesting that the city needs to sweep the streets or pay the consequences in lost tourism dollars.

3. Lack of legwork. In San Francisco, newspapers and TV stations ran the story about the “canceled” convention under headlines like “SF’s Appalling Street Life Repels Residents—Now It’s Driven Away a Convention” without ascertaining which group had “canceled” (is it really that hard to figure out which “Chicago-based medical association” has 15,000 members and is holding conventions in the city in 2018 and 2023?) or looking at convention bookings to see if the loss of a single convention would make a substantial dent in tourism revenues. In Seattle, reporters failed to put tourism boosters’ claims in context, dutifully transcribing quotes about how the city’s “attractiveness… is being tarnished and diminished daily” without noting, for example, that the convention business has been so good that the convention center has been turning away “more business … than they have booked due to a lack of available dates,” according to representatives of the convention center itself. In fact, the primary constraint on the convention business has not been homeless people in alleys but sufficient space to meet demand—which is precisely why the convention center has insisted it needs a $1.6 billion expansion.

It’s easy for writers and columnists to cut-and-paste “scathing letters” warning of dire consequences if the city doesn’t clean homeless people off the streets and serve as stenographers for self-serving tourist bureaus. But it’s far more useful to the public when journalists ask tough questions, provide context, and sometimes even decline to run with alarmist stories if the reality doesn’t live up to, or even contradicts, the sky-is-falling hype.

* The only woman, that is, that I was able to find in my review of federal filings from more than a dozen local organizations that provide housing to formerly homeless and low-income people.

Families of Opiate Epidemic Victims Reach Different Conclusions on Safe Consumption Sites

This story appeared in Seattle Magazine.

For months, there had been red flags. In the past, 19-year-old Amber Roberts had always made plans with her father, Michael Roberts, for his birthday. But this year, she canceled at the last minute without explanation.

A few weeks earlier, the former Lake Washington High School student had broken things off with her longtime boyfriend, who lived in Oregon, claiming he was “smothering” her. And friends who partied with her had noticed changes, too. Earlier that month, one of them had texted Amber’s mom telling her that Amber—the girl who still hated needles so much that she took her dad with her when she had to get a shot—had been doing heroin for the past several months. Alarmed, Amber’s mom contacted Roberts, and they made a plan to get their daughter into treatment as soon as Amber returned from Paradiso, a two-day music festival held every year at the Gorge.

But Amber had a friend drive her home from Paradiso early, complaining that she was sick. (Roberts believes she was in heroin withdrawal.) She left her mom’s house for a while, then came back and went upstairs, telling her mom and stepdad she was feeling fine. Roberts still remembers the last text he got from his daughter. “She texted me at around midnight to say she was fine,” he recalls. “And she probably died right after that.”

Heroin can kill slowly or quickly. Many people live through overdose after overdose—saved, in many cases, by the overdose reversal drug naloxone—and experience periods of recovery interspersed with periodic relapses. Others, like Amber, use the drug for just a short time—in Amber’s case, about four months—before taking a last, fatal dose. Sometimes, Roberts says, he feels lucky compared to parents who watch their kids struggle with addiction for years and years. Then he remembers his daughter’s loyalty, her “indescribable laugh” and her love for her family, and he says, “We would take that [struggle] over anything, because at least there would be a chance to save her.”

Since Amber’s death, Roberts, who lives in Kirkland, and Amber’s mother, Kristen Bretthauer, have started Amber’s HOPE (Heroin, Opiate Prevention and Education), a group that works to raise awareness of opiate addiction among teenagers. He’s also become an outspoken advocate for supervised consumption sites—places where users can inject or smoke their drug of choice under medical supervision, with access to wound care, detox and treatment referrals, and overdose reversal and prevention. The goal of supervised consumption isn’t to “cure” addicts. But, as Roberts says, it “can save people’s lives. That’s the bottom line for me. Once you’ve gone through what I went through, you will do anything for other parents not to have that experience.”

So far, there’s only one supervised injection site in North America: Insite, in Vancouver, British Columbia, which has an average of 514 injection-room visits every day, according to program founder Liz Evans. (Insite’s facility only caters to injection drug users; most safe consumption sites also allow people to smoke drugs as well as inject them.) But the sites are common across Europe and they could soon be coming to King County. Last year, the 27-member King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, which includes political leaders, medical experts, drug-policy reform advocates and the mayors of several suburban cities, recommended that the county open two supervised consumption sites as a three-year pilot project, including one in Seattle.

King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray convened the task force last year in response to sharp increases in both opioid addiction and overdose deaths. In 2015, the last year for which finalized data is available, 132 people died of heroin overdoses in King County, up from 99 just two years earlier. Meanwhile, since 2015, heroin, rather than alcohol, is the primary reason people enter detox programs in King County. The recommendation for supervised consumption sites was just one of the task force’s eight proposals, which also included increased access to medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine, a drug that reduces opioid cravings; widespread distribution of naloxone, a nasal spray that can reverse overdoses; and increased spending on prevention programs. But of all the recommendations, safe consumption has been by far the most controversial.

Opponents, such as state Senator Mark Miloscia, who represents Federal Way, argue that safe consumption sites enable users and normalize drug use; he believes drug users need to “hit rock bottom, where they’re looking death in the eye…that’s how you change behavior.” Miloscia, a conservative Republican who has sponsored legislation that would ban safe consumption sites as well as a bill banning all homeless encampments in Seattle, argues that shame, not acceptance, is what keeps people from using drugs. Proponents counter that safe injection sites keep drug users alive—by offering medical care, teaching safer injection practices and monitoring users for overdoses—and provide them with tools and services that help them reintegrate into society, even if they aren’t ready to quit.

“These spaces are not just about drug use—they’re about really connecting folks to community and not just kicking them back out onto the street,” says Patricia Sully, an attorney with the Seattle Public Defender Association (PDA) and the coordinator for Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-WA). VOCAL-WA, which operates under the umbrella of the PDA, is a grassroots group of low-income people, drug users and community advocates who work to promote harm reduction. “Drug treatment itself might not be the only thing people need. Many people need connections to mental health services. Many, many people need connections to housing. And we know that all of those things really make a huge impact in someone’s quality of life,” Sully says.

Harley Lever is a neighborhood activist who ran for mayor in this year’s race and  founded the group Safe Seattle, which advocates against safe consumption sites. HeImage result for harley lever seattlesays the problem with that point of view is that the sites “could never scale to the enormity of the problem,” which is only growing as drugs like fentanyl make street heroin more unpredictable and lethal. “If you said, ‘What’s going to save more lives?’ I think the science will back me up and say widespread distribution of naloxone is going to save far more lives” than safe consumption sites, Lever says.

Safe Seattle advocates for naloxone distribution, but their main contribution to the debate over safe consumption sites has been advocating Initiative 27, which would ban safe consumption sites throughout King County. Editor’s note: Opponents of the initiative won a court ruling that could keep the initiative off the ballot, but proponents are expected to file an appeal. In the meantime, the King County Council has passed an alternative ballot measure to replace I-27 if proponents win on appeal; that measure would ask voters whether they support voting on supervised consumption sites at all, and, if they say yes, whether they support or oppose the sites.

Lever, like Roberts, came by his views on addiction the hard way. Two of his brothers, along with countless friends and relatives back in his hometown of Boston, have been addicted to heroin, and several have wound up in jail or died. One of Lever’s brothers has been clean for years; the other, an Army veteran who has spent years in and out of Veterans Administration (VA) rehabs, is now homeless and living, Lever says, on “borrowed time.”

“[My brother] has OD’ed four times in the last year, and every time he was saved by naloxone,” Lever says. “He’s been in this constant cycle of being in treatment, getting sober, living in sober housing—and then, almost every single time, right when he gets his check [from the VA], he goes and spends it and he’s back in that cycle.”

Although one of his brothers quit “cold turkey” and “turned his life around,” Lever has slim hopes for his homeless sibling. “We’ve tried everything. It’s been 15 years, and he’s been so lucky to survive, but we know one day we’ll get the call,” he says. The VA has provided Lever’s brother with a place to stabilize himself and access health care and treatment, and it has probably helped him stay alive this long. But it hasn’t gotten him sober.

While one argument against safe consumption sites is that anything that allows addicts to continue using is the wrong solution to the opioid crisis, there are other objections.

Some who are opposed to safe consumption sites say the sites will bring crime and addiction to neighborhoods where drugs and crime were not previously a problem, or worry that the sites simply enable addicts to “slowly kill themselves by taking drugs and harming their bodies,” as Republican King County Council member Kathy Lambert, who represents Sammamish, Redmond and Issaquah, said back in June.

But the Vancouver Insite experience has proven otherwise. Insite founder Evans says the amount of street disorder around the facility has declined significantly since it opened in 2003, and that Insite staffers have reversed more than 6,000 overdoses; in 14 years, not one person has died at the site. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where Insite is located, is a rough-edged but gentrifying neighborhood near the city’s Chinatown that has been plagued by drugs and crime for decades. Seattle has no real equivalent, since drug use here is more widely distributed throughout the city, which is one reason advocates here have argued for more than one safe consumption site.

That information, however, doesn’t sway opponents like Lever.

“The compassionate side of me says we shouldn’t be [pushing I-27], but the strategic side of me says we should, because we should be focusing on better solutions than safe injection sites.”

Ultimately, the initiative may be unnecessary. In June, a majority of the King County Council voted to prohibit funding in the amended 2017–2018 budget for supervised drug consumption sites except in cities that explicitly approve them, and to bar county funding for any site outside Seattle. The vote effectively means that a safe consumption site couldn’t open until 2019 at the earliest, because the only potential funding source for a site in Seattle, the countywide Mental Illness and Drug Dependency tax, is already spoken for.

Officials in Seattle have not identified a specific site, but City Council and County Council members who represent the city, such as King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles of District 4 (which includes Ballard, Fremont, Crown Hill and Wallingford), have said it will not be in any neighborhood that doesn’t want it, making Capitol Hill a more likely location than, say, Magnolia.

Dave Upthegrove, a Democratic County Council member who represents Burien and other South King County suburbs, says that while there is a lot of misinformation about the risk of safe consumption sites, “people’s emotions are real, and we need to be respectful of people’s fears.” He adds, “Even folks who have experienced heroin addiction in their own families are divided.” He fully supports the sites, however, and supports Seattle becoming the first city in the region to have them.

Roberts, who has been open about his own struggles with addiction, believes that the fears people have about drug users can only be addressed by destigmatizing addiction; more people also need to understand that even “good people” can get swept up by addiction. “There tends to be an attitude of ‘My child would never do that’; I really want to sway that view,” he says. “In one year, there were at least three overdoses at Amber’s high school. There’s just not enough awareness of the problem.”

With the dramatic increase of overdose deaths, he says, “there’s not going to be anyone around to deal with it anymore.”

Although Roberts and Lever—both King County residents whose families have been devastated by the impact of heroin addiction—have reached vastly different conclusions about how to solve the problem, they agree on this point.

“What I fear most is we’re going to die our way out of this epidemic,” Lever says.

The Europe Experience

Safe consumption sites are still rare in the United States, but they have a long history in Europe, where the first supervised injection site opened in Bern, Switzerland, in 1986. Since then, more than 75 such sites have opened across the continent: in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, Greece and France.

Although the services offered by safe consumption sites vary slightly from country to country (some are strictly safe injection sites; others provide medically assisted treatment right on site), the basics are the same: They include a safe space to consume illegal drugs indoors and under medical supervision, clean needles, basic medical care, and connections to addiction treatment and other health and social services.

Numerous studies across Europe have concluded that safe consumption/injection sites not only reduce risky behavior, such as sharing needles, but lower the number of overdose deaths in cities. Safe consumption sites also have been found to reduce the number of violent, property and nuisance crimes associated with street drug use, and increase the number of people who get into treatment—a result that holds true in North America, too, where more than 60 peer-reviewed studies have concluded that Insite, the safe consumption site in Vancouver, British Columbia, has increased the number of people seeking treatment without increasing crime.

Safe Seattle’s Harley Lever: Safe Consumption Sites Can’t Scale to the Size of Seattle’s Heroin Problem

This is part 2 in a series of interviews with advocates on both sides of the safe-consumption issue.

Earlier this week, a coalition of public health experts and people who have lost loved ones to overdoses announced that they are suing to block Initiative 27, which would ban supervised drug consumption sites throughout King County, on the grounds that public health decisions are outside the scope of the initiative process. The group, called Protect Public Health, argues in their lawsuit that under state law, King County and its public health department are responsible for making public-health policy decisions for the county, and “[i]t would be antithetical to this scheme to allow citizens to delay or override urgent action on a public health crisis merely by raising sufficient funds to qualify a referendum or initiative.” (You can read the full complaint here.)

Last week, the King County Elections Department confirmed that initiative supporters had collected enough signatures to qualify for the February 2018 ballot.

With safe consumption very much in the news this week, I thought it would be a good time to hear from some advocates on both sides of the safe consumption issue.

Today, my conversation is with Harley Lever, one of 21 candidates for mayor in the recent primary election and a leader of the Facebook group Safe Seattle, which organizes on policies related to homelessness and drug addiction. Safe Seattle has been vocal about their opposition to proposals that would reduce penalties on people who live on Seattle streets, in tents, or in their cars or RVs, and in favor of more frequent and punitive encampment “sweeps,” in which homeless people living in tent encampments are forced to move from place to place. Safe Seattle says it supports increasing access to shelter and services and providing treatment on demand, but that people who refuse to leave their encampments or RVs and relocate to shelters or treatment should be fined, jailed, or forced to move along. Most recently, they have opposed legislation proposed by city council member Mike O’Brien that would give people living in their vehicles immunity from some traffic laws and fines if they enter a program that puts them on a path to permanent housing; the proposal would also enable the city to set up potentially dozens of small “safe lots” around the city where vehicle residents could park without punishment or parking fines. Arguments against the legislation range from “I have to follow the law, so why shouldn’t they?” to “if RVs become legal everywhere, I guess I’ll just sell my house and go live in one tax-free.”

Safe Seattle has also been supportive of Initiative 27, arguing that safe consumption sites will increase crime and open drug use in the surrounding neighborhoods, and that they will only enable drug users to keep using instead of seeking treatment. Many of Safe Seattle’s writers and commenters have argued that forcing people into drug treatment is an effective way to get people into recovery, and that if Seattle does allow a safe consumption site, IV drug users will congregate around the property and use (and overdose) outside, littering neighborhoods with needles and the bodies of overdosed addicts.

Lever, however, he says opposes safe consumption sites for more complicated reasons: He doesn’t believe they can scale up to the size of the city’s opiate and heroin problem. He says he’d rather see the city spend its money on widespread access to naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug, and detox and treatment on demand, than on sites that might save a few lives but won’t effectively address the underlying epidemic. Like King County Public Health’s recovery division deputy director Brad Finegood, Lever’s knowledge of the toll drug addiction takes on users is personal: Two of his brothers have been addicted to heroin, and one is currently homeless and living with active addiction in Boston. I talked to Lever by phone last month; his comments have been edited for clarity and to remove the names of his family members.

Here’s Lever:

Image result for harley lever seattleOur story is the same story that’s happened to scores of people from my hometown, as well as throughout Boston. People just started using OxyContin recreationally. You have a couple of beers, have a Xanax, and it makes you feel really good. No one ever contemplated the level of addiction that it would create. Before the city or state even realized what was happening, we started seeing break-ins at pharmacies and crime spiking, because Oxy 80s sold for 80 bucks on the streets, and as people got progressively more addicted, they started stealing. It just skipped my high school class by about nine years.

The state of Massachusetts and a lot of pharmacies started smartening up about what was going on and did everything they could to restrict access to Oxy, and as it became more difficult to access, people started switching to heroin, and my brother was one of those. He got off heroin temporarily, but he went into the Army, where he started thriving, which was good. The only problem was, they made him a medic, which is a stupid thing for person to do who has documented addiction disorder. He did really well for three tours in Iraq, and then he went to Afghanistan and we think our cousin started sending him OxyContin, so he came back addicted.

“[My brother] is homeless. Fortunately, because he’s a veteran, he can get access to VA help. He overdosed four times last year, and every time he was saved by a person who had naloxone.”

My cousin eventually got arrested and is currently serving a five-year term in federal prison, and his family’s pretty much been tossed on their heads. Both of his kids were born addicted to opioids. They still have developmental delays and issues even now. His wife still struggles with opioid abuse disorder. And then, most recently, in August of 2016, my cousin’s ex-husband died of heroin overdose. So just in our immediate family, we’ve seen a lot of the devastation.

On a larger scope, I have a lot of friends who are either dead or are actually still addicted to heroin or in prison. This is an ongoing problem in our community.

[My other brother] has totally turned his life around. There are a lot of stories like this too, where people went down the wrong path but were able to get out of it and stay out of it. He went down dark path, but you would never know it looking at him. He went cold turkey. I think that he realized the path he was going down was not a good one. We’ve never talked about it, but I assume that, like many people gripped with addiction, he hit a rock bottom and he turned his life around.

“I don’t necessarily think a safe injection site will make the situation worse. My issue with the safe consumption site, in the context of Seattle, is that it can’t scale to the size of the problem.”

[My brother] is homeless. Fortunately, because he’s a veteran, he can get access to VA help. He overdosed four times last year, and every time he was saved by a person who had naloxone. He’s been on suboxone, methadone, and Vivitrol. I think the problem with him is, he’s done it for so long that his impulse control mechanism in his brain is really shot. He’s been in this constant cycle of being in treatment, getting sober, living in sober living—and then almost every single quarter, right when he gets his [benefit] check, he goes and spends it and he’s back in that cycle.

I don’t necessarily think a safe injection site will make the situation worse. My issue with the safe consumption site, in the context of Seattle, is that it can’t scale to the size of the problem. We have 23,000 opioid-addicted IV drug users in King County. On average, they inject three times a day. So you have 69,000 injections a day. The two [proposed] safe consumption sites can only supervise 500 injections combined, so we have choices. Either we can scale up and offer [274] other facilities to supervise all the injections, or we can do what saves my brother consistently and have widespread distribution of naloxone and layperson training. For the $3 million it will cost to fund these two safe consumption sites, we could literally give every single one of the 23,000 addicts 47 prescriptions of naloxone. What we should be doing is having a CPR crowdsourcing model, where we teach lay people to reverse overdoses.

“[Canada] and other countries that have these systems in place have government-run health care. They can provide access to detox and rehab on demand. We don’t have that.”

I don’t think they really ever contemplated fentanyl. It used to be that you could use black tar heroin for a long time and not risk overdosing like you see with fentanyl. What I fear most is that we’re going to die our way out of this epidemic. Fentanyl is not as prevalent here yet as it is on the east coast or up in B.C., but it’s going to make its way here. I just fear those 23,000 opioid addicts we have here are going to die and never get a chance to recover.

We have to actually look at the recovery system here in Washington State. We don’t have access to detox or rehab on demand. One of things I hear a lot of proponents talking about is how they do all these great things [at Insite in Vancouver and other safe consumption sites around the world], but [Canada] and other countries that have these systems in place have government-run health care. They can provide access to detox and rehab on demand. We don’t have that. We might have a bed available to you in nine to 12 weeks, which is a lifetime for detox. We’re also looking at months for rehab. We need to fix that structure. I think that’s a critical component.

“The compassionate side of me says we shouldn’t be [banning safe consumption sites]. The strategic side of me says, yes, we should, because we should be focusing on better solutions than safe injection. “

They do have HIV testing and hepatitis C testing. I think that’s absolutely a great point. But we also can do that with our navigation teams. I was talking to Daniel Malone from DESC and we both agree that if we have a mobile van where they can meet with opioid addicts where they reside, that would be a more strategic, cost-effective approach [to dealing with certain health problems common to opioid addicts].

The compassionate side of me says we shouldn’t be [banning safe consumption sites]. The strategic side of me says, yes, we should, because we should be focusing on better solutions than safe injection.  I recognize that a lot of people do it out of hatred towards drug-addicted people. What I always say to someone who hates an addict is: You are going to have an addict in your family. And once you do, this whole mantra of ‘They chose to stick a needle in their arm’—well, they did it under the influence of withdrawal and pain and sadness and different types of trauma.

Some people say, ‘I had to hit rock bottom. I had to be threatened with jail. I had to have these pressures.’ I think [tough love] absolutely works with some people. I think it would be silly to say that only tough love works, because there’s some very stubborn people out there. I’d probably be one of them, because I’m a bit hard-headed at times.

Honestly, I don’t think my brother will ever recover. My mother has said the same thing I’m just waiting for the call. We wish it was different. It’s been 15 years and he’s been so very lucky to survive, but we know, based on just the trajectory and frequency of his overdoses, he’s on more than borrowed time.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: How About You Just Rent Them the Apartment?


Image result for no vacancy sign

1. The council’s civil rights, utilities, economic development, and arts committee unanimously passed legislation yesterday morning that will bar landlords from considering potential tenants’ criminal records, unless they were convicted of a sex offense as an adult. Council member Mike O’Brien offered two amendments to the legislation, which I wrote about last week: The first removes an exemption to the new rule for landlords of buildings with four units or fewer who live on site, and the second removes the so-called two-year lookback, which would have allowed landlords to consider a tenant’s criminal history going back two years.

Council member Debora Juarez, a former Superior and Municipal Court judge, said both amendments addressed a fundamental problem with the original bill: It created different classes of landlords and renters. The four-unit exemption, she said, gave extra privileges—essentially, the right to discriminate—to landlords who happened to own smaller buildings and live in one of the units, and the two-year lookback put tenants with more recent criminal histories in the position of begging landlords, on a case-by-case basis, to take them despite their criminal record. “It’s pretty clear that people of color and low-income people are being disproportionately denied and discriminated against … based on the fact that they have criminal records,” Juarez said. “I think you should just eliminate [the lookback period]. How about you don’t consider anything [other than a tenant’s ability to pay]—you just rent them the apartment?”

Herbold, who expressed concern last week that some small landlords might get out of the business if they had to rent to people with recent criminal records, said yesterday that she had decided “to vote according to my values and what I feel is best for renters in this city.” The proposal goes to the full council next Monday.

2. Council member Sally Bagshaw’s health and human services committee will take up the recommendations of the Vehicular Living Workgroup, which has been meeting since March to come up with “solutions that meet the needs of vulnerable populations living in vehicles due to inaccessible housing and address neighborhood impacts of vehicular living,” at 2:00 this afternoon. The meeting will be just for discussion; no legislation will be introduced.

The recommendations include a mitigation fund to help RV residents and other people living in their vehicles pay their parking tickets; additional outreach services; and a citywide “safe parking” program that would allow people living in vehicles to park safely in small groups (no more than five or six vehicles at one place) around the city. The recommendations do not, notably, include banning the estimated 1,000 people who live in their vehicles from parking inside city limits, and that has gotten the attention of the folks at Safe Seattle, a group opposed to allowing people to live outdoors or in their vehicles. Commenters on the group’s Facebook page have called Bagshaw “dangerous,” accused the council of “turning our precious city streets into desolate drug & crime ridden RV parks,” included the hashtag “shitforbrains,” and accused council member O’Brien of intentionally unleashing “blight” throughout the city as part of a conspiracy to drive families to the suburbs so the whole city can be redeveloped into apartments.

The public comment period will be 20 minutes.

3. Every year, lefty candidates in Seattle races try to distinguish themselves by pledging “not to accept any money from corporations or developers,” suggesting by implication that their opponent is financed by (and in the pocket of) big corporations. For example, in this year’s mayoral race, Cary Moon, and Nikkita Oliver both pledged that they would not take direct contributions from corporations or developers, and in the race to fill city council Position 8, both Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda made a similar vow Moon and Oliver were trying to distinguish themselves from their business-endorsed opponent Jenny Durkan, and Grant and Mosqueda from their business-endorsed opponent Sara Nelson.

It all sounds very principled: “Even if it costs me the election, I will decline all corporate contributions, because my values aren’t corporate values.” But it’s just about the easiest promise any candidate can make—because corporate contributions are basically nonexistent in Seattle.

Obviously, the Seattle Chamber and other business groups support certain candidates (often, in recent years, by funding independent expenditure campaigns), but corporations don’t typically give to individual candidates, making this perennial pledge little more than an empty applause line. I took a look at the contributor lists for the frontrunners in this year’s mayoral and council races, and found that, after Oliver and Moon (who, indeed, took no direct contributions from business), the candidate who took the smallest percentage of contributions from businesses—just 1 percent—was actually … Jenny Durkan. (Jessyn Farrell tied Durkan’s 1 percent.) Three percent of populist state legislator Bob Hasegawa’s contributions came from businesses, as did 2 percent of Mike McGinn’s. Worth noting: 60 percent of Moon’s money came from her own bank account; as Moon herself has said, she was able to self-finance largely because of family money, which came from the family … business.

In Position 8, the pattern is similar. While neither Mosqueda nor Grant received any money from businesses, “business” candidate Nelson got just 4 percent of her money from businesses.

All candidates, including Oliver, Moon, Mosqueda, and Grant, received contributions from people who work for corporations, including Amazon, Microsoft, Vulcan, and Google.

So the next time a candidate points to “refusing corporate contributions” as a point of pride, you might want to point out that businesses don’t really contribute to Seattle campaigns—even to “business” candidates.

* Of course, businesses do fund independent expenditure campaigns, which cannot be coordinated with candidates.

** Part of the reason business contributions make up such a small percentage of campaign war chests in Seattle is that contributions are limited to $500. The limit is designed to reduce the influence any one contributor can have over a candidate, and it serves its purpose.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.