Strung out

Important service center for drug users faces a hostile new mayor and eviction.

FOR YEARS, the city of Seattle has ached to do something about the downtown intersection of Second and Pike. The neighborhood has festered for decades as a crime-ridden eyesore of adult businesses, prostitution, and open drug sales and use. As downtown redevelopment has pushed ever closer—and as the adult businesses and prostitution (as well as single room occupancy hotels and other very low-income housing) steadily disappeared—the drugs have remained.

And now, Street Outreach Services (SOS), which runs a corner drop-in center that provides education and services (and shelter from the cold rain) to users, is facing eviction at the end of this month.

SOS is one of a number of tenants, including the downtown needle exchange run by the health department, in the building on the northwest corner of Second and Pike. For months, the building's tenants have known that this year the building would be history, with a new development set to help connect the retail core to the east with cultural and tourist attractions toward the water. But thus far, only one tenant—SOS—has been asked to leave. And while former Mayor Paul Schell gave the agency a written promise that he would help SOS relocate, new Mayor Greg Nickels is giving SOS the cold shoulder.

Nickels, interviewed last Monday on KUOW, told a caller that poor management on the part of the needle exchange and SOS was exacerbating the problem at Second and Pike, and that he would do nothing to help the programs relocate until there were changes in how the programs were run.

After the caller suggested that the problem wasn't poor management, but lack of money to deal with the neighborhood's problems, and that in the meantime a desperately needed facility was about to close, Nickels replied that he "had only been mayor for a week and couldn't be held responsible for promises made seven months ago."

In a letter to Nickels after the KUOW interview, SOS executive director Kris Nyrop complained that the agency had been " . . . blindsided by a new mayor who publicly proclaims that a person he has never met or spoken to at an agency that he apparently knows virtually nothing about and has not visited is a source of a major civic problem."

Marianne Bichsel, spokesperson for the mayor, denies that Nickels has turned his back on SOS. "The mayor is supportive of the needle exchange and of the Street Outreach Services program and supported them as a [King] County Councilman. Having said that, [he] believes that there is a serious drug dealing problem on that corner, and that the management of the needle exchange and SOS could do more in working with their clients to reduce that problem."

Nyrop is incredulous. "They have not talked with me at all," he complains. "I don't think Nickels even knows that the needle exchange and SOS are separate entities." As of last Friday, he had not heard anything back on his request to meet with Nickels.

It probably does not help SOS's situation that it is one of the city's most visible proponents of the "harm reduction" model of providing services to drug users—an approach that, rather than encouraging abstinence, assumes that users will continue to take drugs. SOS's focus, then, is to "reduce the harm associated with substance use through outreach and education" so as to prevent overdoses and other problems; the city's needle exchanges, similarly, provide clean syringes and needles to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. While SOS does not run the needle exchange at Second and Pike, it does run two other needle exchanges, on Capitol Hill and in the University District. Harm reduction programs tend not to have enthusiastic neighbors for the obvious reason that their clients are often still active drug users.

Nyrop says the Health Department's downtown needle exchange is negotiating for an extension of its lease at Second and Pike, but no such talks are under way about SOS' drop-in center. When SOS closes its doors, its 300 daily clients will have nowhere else to go in the downtown core.

SOS will also need office space, but it is the drop-in center that is proving most difficult to find a new home for. Moreover, moving to another location largely defeats SOS's purpose; the agency wants to be where the drug users are.

"Both Street Outreach Services and the health department chose to conduct outreach activities in this neighborhood precisely because it was the single largest outdoor drug market in Seattle," Nyrop says. "If anything, this neighborhood is safer now than at any point in the last 25 years."

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