This month, an installation stands outside the Fifth Avenue entrance to City Hall as a silent indictment of a city that just doesn’t care. A six-foot plastic sculpture of the number 508 holds flowers and other remembrances of the people who have died of drug overdose in Seattle since September 2016.
That was when the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Task Force finalized their recommendations to curb the crisis. Shortly after, the city set aside $1.4 million to promote drug-user health.
To date, that money sits untouched, and death arrives day after day for those who could have been helped.
While overdoses from heroin and opioids are unacceptably high but stable, deaths from methamphetamines are sharply up. Yet little to nothing is being done, despite the resources being available.
The obvious question that arises is “What? Why?”
The answer comes down to this. In the hierarchy of the deserving and undeserving poor, drug users rate solidly in the Let ‘Em Die zone. And in a city where disgust over visible misery now animates our elections, inaction is the safer political path.
Kris Nyrop has been on the front lines of drug use harm reduction for 31 years, and was around when needle exchange began as fringe movement. I asked him how Seattle could just sit on $1.4 million in relief in the face of such an obvious crisis. He offered a litany of lacks.
“Lack of political will. Lack of sense of urgency. Lack of any compassion. Lack of consideration.”
“It’s about who’s dying,” he continued. “If we had two deaths here of Ebola or West Nile Virus or something like that, they’d be allocating millions of dollars for that and be freaking the fuck out. This is about disposable people.”
Nyrop likened the lack of response to overdose deaths to inaction over the Green River Killer.
“When women involved in sex work were dying, no one cared. The only people who gave a rat’s ass were the people on the front lines and the social workers. Everyone else just sat around and twiddled their thumbs. The people who care about overdose deaths are the family members and friends of people who die, and police and medics.”
“The politicians who could actually make a difference here aren’t doing squat. They allocate $1.4 million and it’s just sitting in a bank account somewhere.”
The Public Defender Association is spearheading a campaign to put those funds to use, and there’s no shortage of ideas for how to reduce the death count.
Fund a methamphetamine treatment pilot: Preliminary research finds that a Medication Assisted Treatment program that offers methylphenidate as a street drug substitute, combined with housing and other supports, would reduce the risk and criminal activity associated with stimulant addiction. This would also reduce deaths, hospitalizations, and incarceration.
Housing First, even for drug users: King County’s numbers driven approach to housing placement has led to significant reductions on family, youth, and veterans homelessness, while deprioritizing those who are often hardest to house, including active drug users and people with criminal histories. In the absence of substantial changes to this approach, chronic homelessness and the public disorder associated with the abandonment of addicts will continue.
Introduce safe consumption practices: Safe consumption is a proven, evidence-based strategy for increasing drug-user health and reducing overdose fatalities. While there are significant political risks with this strategy in the Trump era, and serious challenges to establishing a standalone site, a middle way exists in introducing safe consumption practices to low-barrier sites where drug use already occurs.
Increase Housing First supports: While we all agree that housing stability is a necessary first step in successfully overcoming addiction, in an environment when even Housing First lacks the necessary depth of supportive services, keeping active drug users housed offers particularly tough challenges. Funding for tenant education, mitigation services, and outreach would increase the success of housing placements and save dollars in the long run.
Punishing addiction and ignoring the rising death count isn’t just heartless. It’s stupid. A successful approach to addiction demands the political courage to put judgment aside and focus on what makes our communities safer while keeping people alive.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read the full August 21 - 27 issue.
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