There’s still a lot left to be sorted before the City of Seattle opens its first safe consumption site for people suffering from drug addiction, and advocates highlighted the life-and-death urgency of the matter during a health committee meeting on Thursday.
The Seattle Human Services Department provided the city council’s Housing, Health, Energy and Worker’s Rights Committee with the results of its safe consumption site feasibility study and next steps, receiving no direction yet on what SCS model to pursue.
Also known as community health engagement locations, CHELs provide a hygienic and monitored environment where people can use drugs safely and have access to social and health services, including pathways to recovery when they’re ready.
There are currently no SCS facilities in the United States, and most cities exploring the concept are taking cues from one in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The City of Seattle is planning to open a safe consumption site that would be funded and operated in conjunction with Public Health - Seattle & King County.
King County is exploring where it could open another CHEL outside Seattle.
Both governments are acting in response to recommendations published in a 101-page report by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force in September 2016, which the King County Board of Health approved in January 2017. That report called for two pilot sites — one in Seattle and the other somewhere else in King County. Several cities on the Eastside, including Bellevue, Kent, Renton and Federal Way, have passed legislation to block them there.
Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez cited a court challenge to an initiative to block safe consumption sites in Washington for part of the delay in establishing a facility, though all health committee members echoed advocates’ desire for a quicker turnaround to open an SCS and save lives. I-27 was blocked from making the February ballot by a King County judge back in October.
“Fever is running high on this about where we’re going to site this,” Juarez said. “It has to be led not only with love, but with passion and humanity, and that is the piece that, unfortunately, politics doesn’t always lead to.”
The human services department’s SCS feasibility study estimates a $600,000 one-time cost to lease an existing site for a safe consumption space, with an annual cost of $4 million in 2019, while purchasing a building is estimated to cost $5 million to start, and then $3.28 million in 2019. That $3.28 million annual cost stays the same when considering opening a safe consumption space in an existing city or county owned building, or using portable buildings on an empty lot the city would purchase, according to HSD.
There is also an option to open a mobile facility in a right-of-way, and house other health and social services in a nearby building, which would have a $350,000 one-time cost, and a $3.82 million annual cost in 2019.
These estimates assume a standalone facility would need to be 2,000 square feet, said Katy Tassery with the city’s budget office, to provide space for 10 consumption stations, staff offices, a needle exchange, restrooms, a reception area and waiting room.
Operating the safe consumption site is also estimated to require 14 full-time staffers, not all of who would be working at the same time, Tassery said.
The SCS is currently proposed to be open 10 hours a day, seven days a week.
Councilmember Lorena González questioned those opening hours, as addiction is a 24-hour problem, adding she understands there will be a struggle with the realities of a budget and resources.
There is currently only $1.3 million in funding earmarked to open a safe consumption site in the city’s 2018 budget. González said the city needs to find a revenue stream to fully fund an SCS as the council approaches budget planning this fall.
Tassery said Public Health and the University of Washington conducted a qualitative survey with drug users regarding when they use and what locations would work for them. They said they wanted a place close to where they were already using, or somewhere that wouldn’t require long transit rides. Leslie Brinson Price, senior policy advisor in Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, said the task force recommendation had actually been eight hours a day, five days a week. Jeff Sakuma, HSD health integration strategist, said there would be regular evaluations about how the safe consumption site it is meeting demand once it is open.
If the City of Seattle were to opt for a mobile facility, there would need to be 1,500 square feet of space leased in another building for additional services, according to HSD.
Juarez said she spoke with representatives from Evergreen Treatment Services, and she feels using existing facilities that already provide such services makes the most sense if a mobile SCS were to be the preferred model.
“I’ll tell you, right now, my bias is leaning toward that,” she said.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said HSD has six options for an SCS, and she had a number of unanswered questions regarding a mobile safe consumption site. She said she would like more information regarding how mobile units work in other countries currently using them. If there isn’t a real facility, Mosqueda said, she worries treatment services won’t be accessible.
Beth Gappert with the Seattle Finance and Administrative Services department said a timeline for opening an SCS depends on what model the city council ends up choosing.
Mosqueda said the Housing, Health, Energy and Worker’s Rights Committee would pick up the issue again at its April 19 meeting.
Juarez, who sits on the King County Board of Health with Mosqueda, told presenters she wants to see the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) applied during site evaluations, and asked why there was no timeline for community engagement. Olberding said siting work and community engagement will occur in tandem, and that the RSJI toolkit will be applied during the process.
Mosqueda said there were 359 drug-related deaths in Seattle in 2016, and 64 percent of those were caused by opioids — at least nine involved fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Developing a safe consumption site must be done through a “harm-reduction lens,” she said.
Karen Hartfield with Public Health – Seattle & King County confirmed for González that county funds were recently received that will allow for study into the number of non-fatal drug overdoses, which will also help with determining the best locations for a safe consumption site.
Public Health and the City of Seattle have an interlocal agreement that commits the city to helping to provide enhanced services and those otherwise not funded through other sources, said Jeff Sakuma, a health integration strategist with HSD. An example would be the drug needle exchanges the city started funding 25 years ago, he said.
The interlocal agreement does not include specifics for operating a safe consumption site, and González said she wants a memorandum of understanding between the city and county that better defines that eventual partnership. Juarez added an MOU would also better address liabilities.
“I don’t want us two years down the road to be getting into finger pointing…” she said.
Patricia Sully, who leads Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-WA), a project of the Public Defenders Association, told the committee on March 8 that a safe consumption site would preferably be in a fixed location, though a mobile model could be effective. The space should feel safe, private and comfortable, she said, as drug use can be an intimate experience. The goal is to keep people from going back to alleys and bathrooms.
Juarez said she thinks it’s possible the city could do a mobile and standalone site.
“I don’t want to wait for brick and mortar, quite frankly,” she said.
The Yes to SCS coalition has been hosting volunteer nights regularly in its effort to promote safe consumption spaces. In partnership with the Capitol Hill Community Council, which is advocating for siting an SCS in their neighborhood, a Yes to SCS volunteer night will take place 5-8 p.m. Thursday, March 15, at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave.