Talking to Ashley Hempelmann, you’d never guess the articulate, intelligent, enthusiastic young woman is just four months removed from shooting heroin in alleys and public restrooms around Seattle.
“I was born and raised in Seattle, great family, no history of addiction, no trauma, no abuse, nothing,” Ashley said. “I had all the opportunity in the world. I went to college, graduated, straight-A student. Yet, this can affect anybody.”
That’s why the Cornish photography graduate is such a vocal advocate for safe consumption sites.
“If I had had a place like this, I wouldn’t have contracted Hep[atitis C], I wouldn’t have disposed of my needles in public receptacles or on the streets, and I probably would have gotten help a lot sooner,” she said.
Ashley is among a number of volunteers and advocates who have visited public parks in Seattle and Olympia the past week, erecting a large green tent and setting up information stands to tell the story of safe consumption sites.
“It’s a safe, clean, quiet, sanitary place that’s staffed with medical professionals where people can really make connections both with case managers and other people who can help connect them to services,” said Patricia Sully, a public defender and advocate with Vocal Washington, a leader in the effort to make Seattle the first city in the nation to approve safe consumption sites.
She’s also a member of a King County heroin and opiate addiction task force working to come up with solutions to the ongoing crisis plaguing the area.
“It’s not about promoting drug use, it’s about recognizing that drug use happens,” Sully said. “When we ignore it the death count rises.”
Safe consumption sites provide new needles and other supplies, a clean and well-lit place to use, and designated chill zones where users can hang out after consuming drugs, all under trained supervision.
Advocate and beloved Seattle broadcaster Penny Legate is a staunch supporter of safe consumption sites, and wonders “what if” when it comes to her own daughter Marah.
“My daughter died alone of a heroin overdose,” Legate said.
While she’s not sure if her daughter would have used a safe consumption site, she wishes she’d had the option.
“She might have gone in as a way to feel like she wasn’t the only one dealing with this terrible struggle,” Legate said.
Ashley says she survived a harrowing journey that she’s thankful she survived.
“When you’re on the street using it’s really a big jump from using to seeking help,” she said. “If you’re at a place that’s harm-reduction designed and people are talking with you like a human being, that’s a shorter distance to want to then take that next big step and say, ‘Hey, can you help me?’”
Although controversial and untried in the United States, Sully says all you have to do is look to our neighbors in Vancouver, BC and a facility called Insight that allows safe consumption, for validation.
“They’ve seen a decrease in Hepatitis C transmission and HIV transmission,” Sully said. “They’ve never had a fatal overdose at Insight in all of their years of operation.”
And she says a significant number who never sought treatment previously did so at Insight and remain clean today.
Legate says it’s not only compassionate, it’s common sense.
“People don’t want to be in this situation, they need help. The war on drugs has not worked and we need to find a way to interface with these people to keep them safe, to provide services so they don’t die alone.”
They’re a tough sell. But as Sully and the others introduce the idea around town, she says the reception is surprisingly positive.
“A lot of people who came through at the other events and never heard about this before, as soon as they got the information they said, ‘Well that makes sense’,” Sully said.
You can take a look and decide for yourself. The Safe Shape interactive exhibit will be up and running in City Hall Park at Third and Yesler between 12 Noon and 2 p.m. Tuesday, and at 12th Avenue Arts with a film screening and panel Tuesday night between 6-9 pm.