As Executive Director of the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, Shilo Jama has advocated for needle exchanges, treatment, and safe injection sites in Seattle for many years. These days, however, he feels like he’s dealing more with rumor control.
“We are not going to set up an illegal safe consumption site,” Jama said. “In fact, at this moment we are spending more time trying to get a Suboxone doctor so we can do treatment on demand … that is our highest priority … We are still advocating for safe consumption sites; we still want them. That is what I spend my days on – treatment on demand and dealing with NIMBYs screaming about things that aren’t actually happening.”
Safe injection sites, aka CHELs (Community Health Engagement Locations) have become a controversial topic in King County. The Seattle and King County health department, as well as the county council has approved two such sites — one in Seattle and one in greater King County. But community members have voiced opposition to the sites.
Rumors have floated around Seattle’s University District that the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, a needle exchange, has been scheming to set up an unsanctioned injection site without government approval. For example, the needle exchange erected silver pods at its location in the U-District over the summer. They are to be used as office space and storage. But word got out that they were safe injection pods.
Jama said that he and his organization want to host a safe injection site, but there are no plans to do so illegally. He also says that his past statements have been used out of context in the news, adding to rumors.
“We are still a needle exchange, we are still delivering services,” he said. “Nothing has changed from 6 months ago. Those pods are used for storage. Nothing has been rezoned. We have been working with the county to try to get approval to do safe consumption sites. Nothing has been approved. Nothing has gone forward.”
“People have misconstrued some of our avocation for this project to mean that we were going to do things illegally,” he said. “There was a time when we were looking into that. But when the heroin task force was created, we worked within the system.”
Safe injection sites in King County
King County’s heroin task force developed eight recommendations to fight the rising opioid crisis. One is treatment on demand, which Jama advocates for. Another has been the controversial safe injection sites. County officials have said they will not place any in a city that doesn’t welcome one. And some cities have banned them just in case.
Yet, it’s a program that the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance is trying to work with. Jama admits, it’s been frustrating.
“Since we have been invited to work within the system, we have worked within the system,” he said.
“Am I impatient because our community is dying? Yes,” he said. “Do I think it is stalled unnecessarily? Yes. Do I feel like our city officials are dragging behind the times and people are unnecessarily dying? Yes.”
Jama recently went on KIRO Nights with Zak Burns to debate the safe injection issue with Josh Freed. Freed has fought against the sites, and even tried to ban them through the initiative process. Listen to their debate here.