Seattle council to mull reworked version of plan for safe injection sites

Oct 29, 2020, 1:17 PM | Updated: 1:31 pm
I-27, CHEL, safe injection sites...
Can safe injection sites really help Seattle's opioid crisis? (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

Seattle has had $1.3 million set aside for safe injection or Community Health Engagement Sites (CHELS), for a couple of years and recently added $100,000 to the pot. The work started after the King County Heroin Opioid Task Force recommended several sites be set up in the county, including one in Seattle in 2016.

Are injection sites a slippery slope, or a tool against opioid epidemic?

The sites are based on a model out of Vancouver, B.C., where the locations are open with medical professionals to supervise drug use. The user brings their own drugs with them, while the medical staff provides sterile tools, stands at the ready to administer overdose-reversing drugs, and, should the user be interested, connect them with social services and treatment.

As the effort to open the sites gained steam, other jurisdictions in the county that did not want the sites inside their borders quickly acted preemptively to ban them. At that point, the idea was just to open two sites in Seattle; that was later downsized to just a single site. But difficulties finding a location, costs, and legal concerns have kept those dollars parked with nowhere to actually place a CHEL.

So, advocates for the sites have retooled the model. Rather than standing up entirely new sites to safely monitor drug use, the updated plan would instead train staff members at existing low barrier emergency shelters where high numbers of overdoses are already occurring.

According to Jesse Rawlins with the Public Defender Association, staff at those shelters would be “trained to respond to and reverse those overdoses.”

“We’re suggesting beefing up those services to augment social service provisions so that consumption is made safer and less harmful,” explained Rawlins, who helped draft the re-worked plan, which would effectively remove the necessity to stand up a brick-and-mortar site.

He says there is a desperate need for this service, with more than 750 overdose deaths in Seattle alone since CHEL sites were first recommended in 2016.

“Of overdoses countywide, 14% of overdose rates in 2019 were affected by people experiencing homelessness,” he noted.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold is sponsoring the proposal to move the money over to HSD for the project, but wanted to make one things crystal clear.

“Despite rumors to the contrary this is not a new effort — this is our ongoing effort many years long now dating back to 2018,” she stressed at the start of Thursday’s budget discussion on the proposal.

Some new councilmembers seemed confused over what exactly this would do. Herbold said the big difference is that back in 2018, the plan was to build standalone facilities, but now that’s not the case.

“The plan now is not to build standalone facilities but to fund existing organizations that provide drug treatment services to provide this particular suite of services. This is not an existing program,” she explained. “It is funding for a program that has that gain, that we earmarked back in 2018, that has not been allocated yet.”

Key court decision could pave way for Seattle safe injection sites

Councilmember Kshama Sawant voiced concerns that Mayor Jenny Durkan would not spend the money as intended despite the council’s action, as has been the case the past two years.

“This is an another example of funding that Mayor Durkan has year after year, failed to use, that have been allocated by the city council’s budget decision,” she said. “The original allocation of that $1.4 million was a budget amendment fought for and won by the People’s Budget movement in either 2017 or 2018. But after it was allocated, the mayor shamefully refused to use those funds while opiate addictions spread in the city, in the region, and in the country. So I would really urge the mayor to stop delaying the investment of these funds.”

She was not alone in her frustration.

“This has been one of those issues that was present when I first got sworn in,” said an exacerbated Teresa Mosqueda, who heads up the council’s budget committee. “Here we are working on it for the last year of my first term.”

Herbold pointed to a statement from the mayor’s office suggesting she was interested in taking a closer look to find out how this could work. Durkan and others have previously been concerned after the new U.S. Attorney for Western Washington Brian Moran made it clear that he believed the sites were illegal and would act accordingly, warning the city in April 2019 against opening such a site.

“Just so you know, for now, this action just simply moves the money from Finance General (Department) to the Human Services Department, so that we can begin having these conversations,” Herbold said.

Councilembers Morales, Lewis, Strauss, Sawant and Council President Gonzales all signed on in support of the safe injection site proposal.

Herbold also had a separate $200,000 proposal for harm reduction programs.

“This budget action would increase funding to organizations that use a harm reduction public health approach to serve drug users, with the goal of expanding the bill’s saleability of services for drug users. This includes organizations, such as REACH and Aurora Commons,” said Herbold.

Herbold explained the program was designed to be flexible, and allow the organizations to propose the type of expansion they believe would be most impactful.

“That could include expanding staff or service hours so that organizations could engage with people at additional times — it could include adding a location, it could include adding a service at a facility that they don’t currently have such as medical consultation. One organization is considering launching a good neighbor peer program, which would put peers to work doing good neighbor outreach in their community, including encampments and picking up dirty syringes. This funding could help them launch that program or similar efforts that would increase public health and safety,” said Herbold.

“I just think would be a really a good way to promote these best practices,” she added.

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Seattle council to mull reworked version of plan for safe injection sites