At the Sept. 15 Eureka City Council meeting several things were made clear. The council supports the presence of a syringe exchange program in the city. So does the chief of police. What they do not support is the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction, as least in its current form, evidenced by a 4-1 decision to send a letter to the California Department of Public Health requesting the nonprofit not be re-certified for syringe exchange services.
"I feel as though we have supported HACHR and gone over the top to help them," said Councilmember Kim Bergel. "You're amazing with the clients. ... You make huge differences every day. But frankly, the neighbors and much of the city, they're not appreciative. ... I felt like over the past two years there has been this big finger coming up at us when we try to work with you. ... If it was another business, you'd be shut down for noncompliance."
The council's vote came in spite of an outpouring of support for HACHR from members of the public.
In its letter, the city accuses HACHR of "thumbing its nose" at city requests for greater information and outreach, as well as complicity in onsite drug use and sales. It also accuses the nonprofit of condoning and facilitating the smoking of methamphetamines. (HACHR staff strongly deny all of this.)
The decision to send the letter, initially announced via an Aug. 12 city press release, came after a four-month surveillance and undercover investigation of HACHR's facility at 1522 Third St. by the Eureka Police Department. This investigation was initiated by EPD Chief Steve Watson after a meeting between himself, then City Manager Dean Lotter and neighbors who complained that the program had attracted nuisance behaviors, such as open drug use, drug deals and needle litter.
Watson, speaking on the matter during council discussion, said he wanted to make it clear that "this was no witch hunt."
"In March, we viewed criminal activity that led us to a fact-finding mission," said Watson. "I was very clear with my staff — I'm not looking for a certain outcome here, I just want to know the truth."
Officers surveilled the facility and its parking lot and went undercover as clients seeking clean syringes. Undercover officers said they were approached to buy drugs as they waited in line at HACHR; a video released with the report corroborates one such transaction. Officers reported witnessing hand-to-hand transactions in the parking lot and a person shooting up next to the site. An officer also saw what seemed to be a HACHR staff member or volunteer smoking methamphetamine in the building. Capt. Brian Stephens, who authored the report, says the investigation proved staff were aware of onsite drug sales and use.
"I believe they are aware of what takes place," said Stephens. He also cited an incident reported by an officer who attended the organization's open house in which a person left the bathroom apparently intoxicated on opiates, and the fact that HACHR's bathroom door had a posted time limit for use as evidence that onsite consumption was tolerated. Due to COVID-19, HACHR changed its operations to prohibit clients from going inside the building to use the bathroom, which Stephens said prevented officers from investigating further.
During the investigation, officers also revealed that HACHR gave out "safer smoking kits" for using methamphetamine; HACHR staff say this is in line with best practices from the California Department of Public Health. Its website says the practice is not only allowed under state law but also that CDPH has "determined that safer smoking materials, provided in a harm reduction context alongside health education care, may help individuals avoid initiation of injection drug use, and may allow people who inject drugs to transition from injection to safer modes of administration."
The 23-week investigation did not result in any charges filed against HACHR staff, although it did lead to three arrests on allegations of heroin possession for sales, according to EPD. HACHR Executive Director Lasara Firefox Allen disputes the allegation that staff would tolerate onsite drug use or sales, adding that they have not been presented with EPD's evidence of a staff member allegedly smoking methamphetamine on the premises and that the staff member in question was no longer there.
"We do have a standing agreement with our participants that that kind of behavior will not occur on our premises," Firefox Allen said. "We're in Eureka — if you go to McDonald's and do an undercover surveillance there, you'll find drug activity in the parking lot. ... We do our part to make sure that kind of activity is not happening on our premises. We try to protect our program."
Curiously little was said about this investigation during the meeting. Instead, councilmembers focused on HACHR's alleged refusal to send quarterly reports to the city manager, a key part of the city ordinance. Bergel claims HACHR staff replied to requests for reports by saying they didn't have to because they are state licensed.
Councilmember Natalie Arroyo said the city, which does not certify the program, has a "limited toolkit."
"To be perfectly frank, we and EPD are worn out by the nuisance issues around the property," she said. "We are getting informed that it is concentrated there to a degree that is unsupportable. I feel as though the responsibility for dealing with public impact and perception has fallen hard on the city."
Arroyo went on to cast the lone dissenting vote against sending the letter, saying she did not think it would have the desired effect of mitigating crime and nuisance behavior in the neighborhood. An earlier agenda item — which repealed the 2016 council resolution in support of HACHR and replaced it with a similar resolution that did not name a specific syringe exchange program — passed 4-1, with Councilmember Leslie Castellano dissenting on the grounds that she preferred to resolve the conflict through community stakeholder meetings. A portion of that resolution requiring syringe exchange services to be mobile and decentralized was tabled pending further research by staff.
Former HACHR Executive Director Jessica Smith attributed lack of compliance with the city's ordinance to a miscommunication, not willful defiance. When she took the reins from HACHR founder Brandie Wilson in July of 2019, she sent a cumulative nine-month report to then-City Manager Greg Sparks at his request. Smith said she did not receive any further requests for reports and that state guidelines on what is required are "unclear."
"It was never, like, an intentional, 'Screw you, city,'" said Smith, echoing Bergel's words.
When it was evident that some neighbors were dissatisfied with HACHR's presence; she said she talked to them and gave them her phone number. The program, established in 2016, has attracted criticism from its inception, but Smith said most of what she has experienced has been online, rather than the "vocal, open" pushback that Wilson experienced, which included death threats. For most of her tenure, and that of Firefox Allen's, Smith said the city and public have been "eerily quiet."
Then came the report. HACHR staff found out about the EPD investigation and the letter to the CDPH the same way as everyone else, Smith said: When it came out in the media.
"It felt ... not great," said Firefox Allen. "Basically, it was in my first month as ED. It felt like a trial by fire, honestly."
The nonprofit is now waiting for the CDPH's decision, which is due in early October but may be delayed as the state department addresses the pandemic, with the fate of what many feel is a crucial service hanging in the balance. Needle exchange programs have been repeatedly proven to reduce the spread of disease and improve health outcomes, while Humboldt County has hepatitis C infection rates five times the national average and an opioid overdose rate five times that of the rest of California, according to a 2018 report from the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services.
Firefox Allen and Smith said they are working proactively with the city and with neighbors. Missing from the narrative, they said, are the many people in the community who support their work. Those community members called in in droves for the council meeting, contributing to more than an hour of public comment and outnumbering detractors 17 to three. They ranged from HACHR employees and board members to medical professionals and community members who spoke in support of harm reduction in general and HACHR in particular. But for councilmembers, this show of support and the explanations from HACHR staff appeared to be too little, too late.
"A lot of people are supporting an ideology rather than an organization," Councilmember Austin Allison said during discussion. "No matter what we do, we're going to disappoint people tonight. As a medical professional ... I think harm reduction is important but I don't know if HACHR is the best fit for this community. And that's tough for me to say."
Linda Stansberry (she/her) lives in Eureka. Find more of her work at www.lindastansberry.com.