A Seattle-backed homeless shelter is instructing addicts to smoke heroin and inject drugs rectally. And the shelter is using tax dollars to help get addicts high.
The Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) passes out heroin pipes and so-called “booty bumping” kits. To alert homeless clients of their offerings, DESC posted several flyers at their Navigation Center location on 12th Avenue South. They give encouragement to addicts to use new tools and methods to continue their destructive and deadly addictions.
Officials with Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD) won’t directly respond to concerns over the advice or use of funds. But they do back the methods because it “reflects the varying needs of those experiencing homelessness in Seattle.”
Two flyers, one message: Do drugs
The DESC is a self-described social justice organization.
They operate low-barrier shelters for the most vulnerable homeless population, many of whom live with severe addictions. The group approaches their homeless advocacy with “harm-reduction techniques and evidence-based practices.”
With that guiding principle, staff posted two flyers with tips on how to be safer and more efficient addicts.
One flyer is focused on smoking heroin, rather than injecting it. It says DESC is passing out new heroin pipes because “smoking is a lower-risk alternative to injection. Give it a try!”
Resident addicts “can now get 3 kinds of glass — bubbles, stems, and hammers — from case managers [or] any member of the management team.” But you’re only allowed “one kind of each pipe once a week.”
You can, however, get “extra screens and mouthpieces” at the front desk.
“The efforts we make are focused on reducing risks to people engaged in risky behaviors, and helping people make use of treatment that can be helpful to them,” DESC Executive Director Daniel Malone tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.
‘Booty bumping’ kits
The second flyer promotes “booty bumping” kits, which provides an alternative to intravenous injection.
This process has an addict inject drugs rectally, usually meth or cocaine mixed with water, through a needless syringe. A rectum is very efficient at absorption, so the high is described as more intense and longer-lasting. The flyer says this method to get high is a “good choice if your veins are hard to hit,” and that it “doesn’t leave tracks.”
This seems like it will keep you addicted longer, not make it easier for an addict to be free of their deadly addiction. But Malone says this technique embraces a harm reduction model. He says it falls “on the continuum of helping people to decrease risk by avoiding the use of needles to inject drugs, because intravenous injection of drugs can produce complications such as phlebitis, vasculitis, cellulitis, vein scarring, abscesses, and systemic infections related to IV injection.”
Booty bumping kits are available at the front desk. All you need to do is ask.
City funds for ‘pragmatic interventions’
Malone confirms to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that the DESC uses “funds from our contract with the City of Seattle to purchase clean syringes and other harm reduction supplies.” Those other supplies include the heroin pipes, but “demand for clean syringes remains far higher than for other kinds of supplies.”
The City of Seattle refused to directly say if it endorsed the flyers or the use of city funds. Kevin Mundt, a spokesperson for the HSD, deflected direct questions and simply sent me an explanation of what DESC offers. But he did reference the flyers.
“I haven’t seen the flyers that you’re referring to and, therefore, can’t comment specifically on the information or how it is presented,” the spokesperson said.
So I sent him the flyers and asked my questions again. Again, he did not answer directly, simply telling me how DESC and HSD handle chronically homeless addicts. Google is considerably more efficient at getting that information than going through a city spokesperson.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Office did not respond to two requests for comment.
Malone argues the approach offers “pragmatic interventions that reduce harm to the individual and overall community.”
“We try to reduce the stigma around substance use to encourage clients to share openly and honestly about their experiences and needs. We speak to clients frankly and directly about the risks and dangers of substance use and the options available to them about changing their use, ” Malone said. “We have substance use disorder counselor and opioid treatment nurse positions at the shelter who provide motivational interviewing, and individual and group counseling.”
But does it work?
How has this approach worked?
Whether you think this approach works may depend on how you define success and what you’re willing to trade for a strategy that is in no rush to treat people for their deadly addiction.
Malone says that the DESC has about 200 homeless people in medication assisted treatment for opioid use disorder. Roughly 125 clients are in outpatient substance use disorder treatment. But he warns “it’s not generally a linear process where people enter treatment and quit using and then become housed.”
In 2019, the DESC moved 28 people into permanent housing and in 2020 just 22. Malone cites affordable housing scarcity as an issue. He also believes this is about reducing the spread of disease.
“Overall, the harm reduction practices and supplies available at the Navigation Center are intended to reduce the transmission of communicable diseases (specifically HIV, Hepatitis C, and Hepatitis A), reduce the possible medical complications from using substances, and reduce overdoses,” Malone said. “They also open the door to conversations that can lead to behavior changes and long-term recovery.”
Critics are less generous in their interpretation of the approach.
Homeless addicts stay addicted, crime goes up
The longer a homeless addict stays addicted, the more crime they will likely commit to feed their addiction.
While it’s certainly true that not all homeless addicts commit crimes, many do. Car break-ins are so common that many simply forgo a police report. Parks have become open-air drug markets or illegal bazaars. Addicts sell stolen goods and use the proceeds to buy drugs.
And the addicts in DESC care have caused considerable harm to the community.
At the DESC downtown Seattle location on 3rd Avenue, Seattle Police responded to 253 reports of assault and 174 theft reports in 2019. All in, this location saw an average of seven single police response calls per day that year, according to KOMO TV. The DESC disputed some of the data. But walk past that location on any given day, at any given time, pre-pandemic, and you wouldn’t feel safe.
While the DESC and proponents of their approach claim it works, there’s usually a caveat. It’s tied to an ideologically driven policy push for free housing. And then there’s the data. While the city and county have used a harm reduction model, the homelessness crisis has gotten worse. So has our drug overdose crisis. Perhaps it’s because the city, via DESC, is handing out the tools to get high.
Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz on Twitter, and Instagram and like me on Facebook.