A nonprofit that passes out clean needles to heroin users and helps tough cases turn their lives around has learned that being streetwise can’t save you from bureaucracy. On July 31, after missing some paperwork deadlines with its county funding agency, Seattle’s 16-year-old Street Outreach Services had its funding pulled and ceased operations, laying off about 10 workers.
The organization plans to regroup and reopen, says SOS board President Andy Ko. In the meantime, the group’s two needle exchange sites – one on Capitol Hill and the other in the University District — continue to operate. Public Health of Seattle-King County, the agency that pulled the plug on this year’s SOS funding of $400,000, has taken over the Capitol Hill site. An all-volunteeer group called the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance now runs the U-District location.
Two more SOS staffers will be lost on Aug. 31, when Clean Dreams, a city-funded outreach program that is part of SOS but has no apparent program problems of its own, closes in the wake of a city decision to kill it as well — an opportunistic move by the city, observers say, to kill a grassroots program that’s helping drug dealers and prostitutes get off the streets in the city’s Rainier Beach area.
The program, which started last September, is one of three street outreach pilot programs that grew out of City Council President Nick Licata’s Civil Streets Initiative. After the health department pulled SOS’s funding for failing to meet audit deadlines, the city’s Human Services Department elected not to renew a contract that had provided Clean Dreams with $140,000 in funding from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, says Eric Anderson, director of HSD’s Youth Development and Achievement Division.
“The city decided to make the decision bcause we were not in good standing with the county,” says Clean Dreams Program Coordinator Nature Carter-Gooding, who will lose her job at month’s end.“I don’t see why because we’ve meet every requirement” the program had with the city, she adds.
Anderson doesn’t dispute that, but notes that, with the county’s funding making up 70 percent of SOS’s total budget, “there really is not an agency there” to administrate Clean Dreams. Clean Dreams is currently trying to find an agency to take the program, says Sunil Abraham, a member of the program’s community advisory board.
“We’re focusing essentially on having Clean Dreams move forward without SOS, because we’re very concerned about the people who are currently participants in the program,” Abraham says. “Some would become homeless, some would not have drug treatment and child care, and others would have no support in their educational and vocational programs.”
The program provides rental assistance to 22 individuals, says Carter-Gooding says, but 14 of them currently don’t have jobs and are facing a return to the streets and their old lives. Clean Dreams is also currently paying for four people to take drug rehab, four to get daycare so they can take classes or look for work, and two to receive mental health treatment.
Altogether, 54 clients will be affected. All were recruited to join the program by word of mouth – and a promise, says Carter-Gooding, that they would get help where they are, for whatever they needed, no barriers, no waiting. Because of their criminal backgrounds, most Clean Dreams clients do not qualify for state assistance programs.
“We’ve been that bridge, that beacon of hope for the young to even have a way out,” says Nature Carter-Gooding, who pulled herself off the street six years ago. “These individuals are left with no other alternative but to resort to their old means of survival.”
Ruth Pearson could be one of them. After a 13-year stint in prison, Pearson, 29, says Clean Dreams has helped her learn how to cope with society and function. She’s gotten a job, but still relies on the program for rental assistance and worries about what will happen when it closes.
“If you don’t have structure, you don’t have nothing,” Pearson says. “I think the program has turned my life around. It’s a blessing.”