EXCLUSIVE: Seattle's homeless say the city is providing them drug paraphernalia instead of treatment and housing

Many Seattle parks are now home to homeless encampments. Neighbors have reported spiking crime and almost no police response, due to the overall defunding of the police department.

Ari Hoffman Seattle WA

In August 2020, the Seattle City Council voted to defund the city’s Navigation Team, a joint venture of Seattle Police, social workers and Waste Management, which provided services to Seattle’s massive homeless population. The council defunded the Nav Team without a replacement plan in place.

Since the defunding, encampments and crime grew exponentially across the city. Many Seattle parks are now occupied by homeless encampments. Neighbors have reported spiking crime and almost no police response, due to the overall defunding of the police department.

In October, the city council voted to fund the REACH program. The plan proposed replacing the Nav Team with social workers. On their website REACH claims the program "builds relationships with people experiencing homelessness and connects them to the help that they need – everything from food and clothing to medical care, shelter, and mental health and/or substance use treatment."

Seattle’s homeless tell a different story than the rosy narrative put out by the REACH program. Andrea Suarez, inspired by the outpouring of community involvement to clean up downtown Seattle after the May 30th riots in the wake of the death of George Floyd established, I Heart Downtown Seattle (IHDS), a grassroots effort that schedules recurring litter and graffiti clean-up projects. They also interview people they meet in encampments and try to direct them to services.

Suarez recently interviewed a woman living in an encampment near a veteran’s hospital who said "City of Seattle defunded the Navigation Team, they would come out and pass out resources for housing…they defunded the Navigation team and put out REACH, they are supposed to hand out resources and when they come out all they ask you is if you want a bubble or cleans or cookers…drug paraphernalia."

Before the Navigation Team was defunded, their after-action reports were cited in a lawsuit of the City of Seattle and King County against Perdue Pharma claiming that over 80 percent of the people on Seattle streets had an addiction issue.

"They (REACH) straight up just ask, do you need a bubble? ...do you need rigs? (needles for injection) Do you need ties? Do you need alcohol prep pads?"

The woman admitted to being a recovering addict for six years and says these offers don’t help at all. "I’ve asked them for resources for tiny housing or anything at all and they don’t have any paperwork on them."

In a statement to The Post Millennial, Lily Rehrmann Strategic Advisor II, External Affairs for Seattle’s Human Services Department said, "The City of Seattle Human Services Department (HSD) contracts with REACH for homeless outreach services which include referrals to shelter and providing life safety items like tents, dry socks and granola bars. In addition, HSD manages Seattle’s contract with Public Health- Seattle & King County (Public Health). Public Health provides the region’s public health response and receives funding from both Seattle and King County. REACH receives public health dollars for a variety of services that may include harm reduction, like clean needle exchange, to help quell the spread of disease."

'Harm Reduction' refers to giving out drug paraphernalia, providing needle exchanges and even heroin injection sites to assist habitual users, hoping that one day they seek treatment. An increasing number of studies have shown that this model does not lead to addicts seeking treatment rather, exacerbates the problem. There were exponential increases in opioid-related calls for emergency medical services and death rates in the immediate vicinity of the sites.

Calls to police to report criminal activity also generally increased near safe consumption sites. Local residents complained about lack of response to calls for police service, as well as "de-policing" near the sites and an increase in needle debris on public and private property where sites were located.

Shilo Jama of the People's Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA), confirmed to Kiro Radio's Dave Ross that there are underground injection sites operating in the city. "Just to be clear, there are dozens and dozens and dozens of them. They are completely illegal, there's no organization sponsoring them," he said.

Clinton Nielson a homeless addict told IHDS that the PHRA has never offered to get him treatment or anything else.

Meanwhile PHRA was one of the organizations responsible for crafting the proposal for the city funded injection sites that Seattle has set aside money for in 2021. Those proposals include providing spaces for first time users. minors and pregnant women to shoot up.

Seattle and King County plan on calling these sites CHELs, Community Health Engagement Locations. Sites are being planned for Aurora Commons and the Hepatitis Education Project at 1621 S Jackson. REACH staff members are the same people behind the CHELs.

'Josh' another resident of the streets of Seattle thinks it is all a "numbers game" and with so many different groups competing for funding, by adding his name on a list but not offering any services, it can help groups get funding. He says that he may see a social worker once and they ask if he needs anything but they never come back.

Josh is also an addict and thinks that addiction is the contributing factor to people being on the streets and laments the lack of in-patient treatment options. He thinks the city offers a lot of suboxone and methadone which he thinks is just replacing one drug for another. He also described the injection sites in Seattle not being real exchanges that you just "tell them a number" and that is the amount of needles they give you. He believes it is enabling behavior and in describing Seattle said "I’ve never been anywhere in my life, where it is as abundant or as easy to get the supplies that you need for free."

Josh also believes that "…defunding the police is the worst idea the city has ever had." He believes that "it’s a real wakeup call when you go do 30 days in county jail" and that it changes a lot of people’s behavior and gives them a desire to get clean. He added that while in there you get options for help and in patient treatment which he feels is the solution.

Many at the time of the Nav Team defunding questioned the safety of the social workers going into dangerous encampments without police protection. These fears were realized less than a month later when a homeless man stabbed a social worker to death at the site where the worker provided services to homeless clients.

In a cruel twist of ironic fate, at the same time the stabbing occurred, the council finalized the 2020 budget, slashing another 20 percent from the police to partially redirect it for social workers to provide services to the homeless.

Seattle Council Member Andrew Lewis who proposed the replacement for the navigation team told SCC Insight at the time "The city’s ability to do removals is not contingent on having the Nav Team," Lewis points out. However, "There was a bunch of stuff that the Nav Team did that wasn’t removals. When we got rid of the Nav Team, we got rid of that too. This is a small step to get that back."

Mayor Jenny Durkan and The Seattle City Council did not respond to requests for comment on the CHELs or the allegations regarding the REACH program.


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