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Point of Contention 

A needle exchange, a neighborhood and a city divided

click to enlarge Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction Director Lasara Firefox Allen outside the nonprofit's Eureka facility.

Photo by Mark McKenna

Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction Director Lasara Firefox Allen outside the nonprofit's Eureka facility.

Is the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction responsible for problem behavior near its headquarters at 1522 Third St. in Eureka? This was the central question the city of Eureka sought to answer and address when it initiated an undercover investigation into the nonprofit in January of 2020. Neighbors had complained of noise violations, needle litter, public injections, drug sales and prostitution. Their complaints would snowball into a series of events that ultimately led to the suspension of HACHR's needle exchange services within city limits as of Dec. 16. But just a few weeks later, acknowledging the twin public health crises of the pandemic and the region's perennially high rates of overdose deaths, as well as hepatitis C and other infection blood-borne diseases, the city passed a resolution Jan. 5 to allow for the mobile distribution of syringes. Two weeks later, the council approved an amended version of HACHR's operations plan for mobile distribution. This meeting — the sixth in five months in which syringe exchange within the city was a central point of focus — showed some of the ongoing fractures in the city's relationship with the nonprofit.

"HACHR will abide by a one-to-one exchange rate with the understanding that this is implemented for the purpose of 'optics' and community relations, since there is no scientific proof that this measure reduces syringe litter," HACHR Director Lasara Allen read from the operations plan in their presentation to the council. Allen went on to explain they had included dissent within the text of the plan because they both felt a cover letter could be detached and dismissed, and they saw the decision as precedent-setting across the state. The council responded by removing the dissenting language from the plan before approving it.

Councilmember Kim Bergel, who along with newly elected councilmember Scott Bauer opposed approving the plan at all, said the "city could do better" in terms of finding a partner to provide the services.

"I hear what you're saying that this is all about not setting precedent," she said. "Well, fine, but if you want to work together and collaborate, then you don't pick every little thing apart. We're not 16 years old, in high school. We're grownups and this is not a way to do business."

Over the past six months, Bergel has made clear she shares the concerns of those in her ward who believe HACHR is responsible for problems surrounding its brick-and-mortar location, just a block from the public library on the south end of Eureka. She joined outgoing Councilmembers Heidi Messner and Austin Allison in several majority decisions that saw the city send a letter to the California Department of Public Health requesting it not recertify HACHR's needle exchange program, reject a mediated compromise between HACHR and city staff, and — ultimately — suspend syringe exchange services until the city could redraft a resolution giving it tighter operational control. The council has received pushback from HACHR, community members and harm reduction specialists across the state, who question whether a municipality should be responsible for creating health policy, especially when said policy contradicts industry best practices during a global pandemic that has made HACHR's already vulnerable client base even more at risk for infectious disease. At the crux of these questions are the ongoing issue of complicity — were HACHR's staff complicit, or responsible for, the problems in the center's neighborhood?

The answer may lie in how one interprets a single incident and seven words.

The incident unfolded June 11, toward the end of a seven-month investigation by the Eureka Police Department. It was captured on video by an undercover officer wearing surveillance glasses and included in a report EPD sent to City Attorney Robert Black on July 7.

In the video, the officer is standing in line at HACHR, waiting to exchange syringes, when he's approached by a man in a white baseball cap. The man mumbles, "I've got stuff for sale," as he walks by. "Listen to Your Heart" by Roxette blares from a Bluetooth speaker clipped to the man's backpack strap. The officer offers to buy, and the pair moves to the front of the building, leaning over a blue metal "free food" box to conduct the transaction. The dealer takes out a small scale and a bag of a brown substance later confirmed to be heroin, humming along to the song as he does. They discuss amount and price, and then a voice from off-screen cuts in.

"You guys are just getting food, right?" a woman asks.

The officer says, "Yes, ma'am, we're hungry."

"Okay," says Jessica Smith, former Executive Director of HACHR, in a clear voice. "Because this is not the place for anything else."

The pair finish the transaction down the street.

"She snuck right up on us," the dealer says.

According to the report, the undercover officer then returned to HACHR, where he received 20 clean syringes, as well as tie-offs and other paraphernalia.

To EPD Capt. Brian Stephens, who authored the police report, those seven words — "You guys are just getting food, right?" — seemed odd.

"It was clear to anyone watching the interaction between the UC [undercover officer] and the male that the sale of illegal narcotics was taking place," he wrote in the report. The report also documented four different instances of people injecting drugs near or on HACHR's property and eight instances of drug dealers approaching and making deals with HACHR clients (and undercover officers) onsite, including one in which a HACHR staff member allegedly smoked methamphetamine with a client and facilitated the sale of LSD inside the building.

Officers also documented the distribution of "safer smoking kits," which included pipes used to smoke methamphetamine and instructions on how to use them, by HACHR staff.

"Based on multiple complaints received from community members and business owners, the undercover operations conducted by the POP team, and the interactions with HACHR, they are knowingly allowing drug trafficking to occur on their premises," Stephens' report concluded. "Additionally, based on the observations of the UC [undercover agent] it appears HACHR is allowing drug use to take place inside their business."

This report was included in a letter drafted by Black, the city attorney, and signed by him, EPD Chief Steve Watson and Mayor Susan Seaman. In the letter, the city asks the state not to recertify HACHR as a syringe exchange program, saying the report "conclusively shows that HACHR is handing out methamphetamine kits and is complicit in the sale and on-site use of drugs."

HACHR staff deny most of these allegations. (The distribution of pipes and other items used for "safer" smoking fit within harm reduction best practices, Allen says.) And the nuance of what happened between Smith, the undercover officer and the dealer are lost in Stephens' interpretation. Smith, the staff member whose voice can be heard on the video, insists that the sale and use of narcotics are "absolutely not tolerated" onsite. Such activity threatens the safety of HACHR's clients and the continued existence of the program, which she said is exactly why she disrupted the two men's suspicious behavior. But just because something is not tolerated doesn't mean it will never take place.

"If you put a camera outside of Burger King, you could get a drug transaction on camera," added Allen, who took over Smith's role in July after she transitioned to a new job with the Harm Reduction Coalition. "This is Eureka."

Allen and Smith dispute the allegations in EPD's report, particularly the undercover officer's account of a HACHR staff member using and selling on the premises. EPD did not release video of this incident and no charges were brought against HACHR staff or volunteers as a result of the investigation. The man from the video – Carl O'Quist – was arrested on a felony warrant in September of 2020.

"As far as I understand, there was no substantiation of drug use or sales," said Allen. "It's not tolerated. It's absolutely not tolerated. The one staff person who could have potentially engaged in that ... that person is no longer on the premises."

The HACHR staff and supporters who thronged public comment during the marathon council meetings spoke frequently about a misconception on the part of councilmembers and critics as to the role of harm reduction, an approach to treating addiction that "meets the client where they're at" and seeks to reduce or minimize the negative impacts of drug use rather than ignore or stigmatize people who use them. Strategies to reduce negative impacts often include providing people with sterile needles and other equipment so they're less likely to contract or spread blood-borne diseases.

HACHR was established in 2014 partially as a response to skyrocketing cases of hepatitis C in Humboldt County, a disease that can be spread by sharing needles. In addition to offering syringe exchange services, the nonprofit provides wound care and hygiene supplies, overdose prevention training and nasal Narcan kits, fentanyl test kits (to prevent overdoses), free HIV and hepatitis-C testing, clothing, blankets and medication-assisted treatment through Brightheart Telehealth. Many of those services are still available at the 1522 Third St. location, but Jasmine Guerra, HACHR's syringe services program coordinator, reported at the Jan. 5 council meeting that the number of people coming to the center for other services dropped 80 percent since the center was forced to pause needle exchange.

As of Jan. 19, HACHR is authorized to offer mobile services under the city's temporary syringe exchange program resolution at three locations: under the Samoa Bridge, in the north end of the Bayshore Mall parking lot and on a piece of private property near the St. Vincent de Paul free meal program. Several community members pushed back on this strategy during public comment, with some citing concerns of having the services so close to wetlands and recreational areas.

Bergel, referring to the north end of the Bayshore Mall parking lot, said, "We worked really hard to make positive changes down there and putting something in there, to me, doesn't make sense."

She was referring to the Eureka's multi-year effort to address a large homeless camp in the Palco Marsh, which was dispersed in 2016, allowing the city to develop a waterfront trail system. The Palco Marsh camp and the city's approach to addressing homelessness was a controversial and complicated topic that produced hundreds of hours of public comment, fraught exchanges between councilmembers and staff, and several lawsuits.

Homeless people, drug users and drug dealers are often lumped together in public debate about the visibly poor, a corollary that's not totally supported by data. What is clear is Eureka has many homeless people — 653 according to the 2019 Point in Time Count. In 2020, a survey by the EPD's Community Safety Engagement Team showed that out of 205 homeless people interviewed, roughly 66 percent said alcohol or drugs had been a problem in their lives. The presence of homeless people — and those visibly under the influence of alcohol and other drugs — is often presented as a quality of life issue for Eureka residents and a setback to the tourism industry.

In many ways, the focus of residents concerned with these issues shifted from the Palco Marsh camps to HACHR when the nonprofit opened its doors in early 2016. Many community members attributed an increase in discarded syringes in public spaces to HACHR's presence. The nonprofit's founder, Brandie Wilson, was the target of persistent verbal and virtual harassment. Protests were held in advance of city council meetings. Although HACHR's reports to the council documented a 93-percent return rate on syringes as of 2018, a vocal sector of the public insisted that the organization shut down or at least switch to a strict "one-to-one" model of distribution. At the time, the city council refused to mandate this change as it goes against the CDPH's recommendations.

The current debate over where HACHR should or could perform services also mirrors the question of where homeless people and organizations providing them services should be. A 2017 proposal to start a homeless day center on Wabash Street was shelved after complaints from neighbors. Business owners near St. Vincent de Paul and the Eureka Rescue Mission on Second Street have complained for years about the area being a hotspot for homeless people (complaints escalated after the Marsh was vacated). Business owners in the city's commercial district were also initially reluctant to accept Betty Chinn's Blue Angel Village. City Manager Miles Slattery, who, like Bergel, was deeply involved in the Palco Marsh clearing, said he believes the Village is a model for integrating services into neighborhoods without friction.

"I have the opinion that it's all dependent on how the operation is run," he said. "We had a huge outcry about the Blue Angel Village — every single neighbor was up in arms ... if you went back there and talked to those people (now), they see that it is being successfully run, they don't have those problems. But you have to make sure that local controls are in place."

But Slattery also added that the Humboldt County Library, which is just down the street from HACHR, has been a congregation spot for homeless people for many years.

"Any location with wifi and bathrooms is going to have issues," he said.

Stephens said HACHR presented a "target rich environment" for drug dealers.

"By having a central location, you have now created a gathering of addicted individuals who are being supplied with the accessories to use narcotics, the education on how to get the most out of the narcotics and to use them safely, with the only missing piece in the scenario being the narcotics," he said. "Drug dealers are attracted by monetary gain and with such a 'safe haven' established at HACHR, it made for easy access to the buyers."

As archived in an email from Watson to then City Manager Dean Lotter in January of 2020, EPD documented 171 calls for service to HACHR's Third Street address in 2019, representing a 714 percent jump from the prior year, which saw 21 such calls.

Bernadette Vielbing, who moved into the neighborhood at around the same time as HACHR, joined the Eureka Kids Before Needles group after a number of troubling incidents, including seeing an increase in human waste on the streets and in her yard, needles left on her property and one instance in which a man threatened to shoot her and her dog. Vielbing says she has lived all over the United States and is neither opposed to syringe exchange programs nor troubled by the presence of homeless people, which she knew was a factor when she bought her house.

"What's getting harder and harder is walking down the street at 2 p.m. and seeing someone shooting up in front of the library, in front of children," she said. "And on the little footpath behind the Ingomar [Club] — that's common."

Samantha Summers, an interior designer who purchased a historic home across the street from HACHR in 2013, said she noticed a shift in the neighborhood after the exchange moved in. She was operating the house as an AirBnB and had gained "Superhost" status but, around 2017, the business began to stumble.

"I started getting negative reviews, especially in the realm of location," she said. "I was confused."

She and her children, then 9 and 2, moved back into the house around that time. When they first moved to Eureka, she had allowed her daughter to play alone in the front yard but Summers said the character of the neighborhood had changed dramatically over four years.

"It felt so violating and frustrating ... for my children, having to explain to them what a needle is," she said. "They weren't allowed to go outside without my permission. There were at least two times random people came up and tried to lure my children out to follow them. We had to stop going to the park. We'd find pipes and knives and needles."

Summers lost her "Superhost" status on Airbnb in 2017.

"I started noticing things like people would sleep on my porch, they would leave their stuff there — bags of trash, blankets, crack pipes ... It really started to get obviously bad in 2018. I would have guests pull up, see people loitering there and they wouldn't even come in. I would have people contact me via Airbnb to tell me they weren't going to stay, would keep moving on. It was hard not to take it personally."

Guests who did stay complained about noise, inappropriate behavior and seeing people use the house's hose to bathe themselves on the lawn.

Summers sold the house in 2019.

"For me, financially and emotionally, it was a huge devastation," she said.

In an email to Smith on Aug. 8, 2019, Watson wrote that officers were continuing to get reports about "ongoing and persistent problems surrounding HACHR's property ... [including] not only the loitering and trespassing issues you described occurring at night, but also open drug use during the day (on or immediately adjacent to the property) among other problems."

"As we discussed previously," Watson continued. "It is ultimately the property owner/manager's legal responsibility to proactively and effectively control criminal behavior, nuisance and disorder issues associated with their property."

Smith responded by saying she had put up signs and spoken to neighbors, encouraging them to send any photos they had of people on the property after hours, and that HACHR had already denied services to those who had recently broken the rules.

"While I understand that it is our responsibility to manage our property, even after hours, it is not our responsibility to manage adjacent or nearby properties, nor are we able to control the behaviors of all people in the neighborhood — be they our consumers or those who just happen to also call that area 'home,'" she wrote, adding that the organization has "very firm rules" about problem behavior, which includes "buying, selling and using drugs on or around the property." She added, "I do believe the police can aid in this by citing or arresting folks if found on property (ours or anyone else's) after a call is made."

"Again, I am happy to do my part to manage my immediate property, but beyond that there is very little else I am able or legally obligated to do," Smith concluded.

On Jan. 16, 2020, Watson emailed Black, the city attorney, and Assistant City Attorney Autumn Luna to relay concerns generated from a meeting between EPD, Lotter, Public Works Director Brian Gerving and a group of neighbors. Watson wrote in his email that the group "presented information and observations about substantial criminal and nuisance problems occurring in the neighborhood which they felt was directly associated with HACHR ... [including] allegations of threats, vandalism, open drug use and drug sales, camping, loitering and needle litter." These complaints, Watson wrote, were consistent with the observations of his officers.

"Having listened to their concerns, I believe all involved would still prefer to settle this issue amicably and constructively with HACHR," Watson wrote. "(The) ideal outcome would be HACHR taking full responsibility for fixing the real and perceived problems on their premises and in the vicinity of their program at 1522 Third St., Eureka. In other words, they would become good neighbors. Past attempts have failed. Based on a meeting Greg Sparks and I had several months ago with their current Executive Director, Jessica Smith, Jessica's position has essentially been that after hours and outside their building it is the city/EPD's responsibility to address these problems and manage their property. I informed Jessica that this is categorically incorrect. Despite being made aware of the issues surrounding their program in that neighborhood, the problems persist and the neighbors are highly frustrated. Civil action is one outcome being considered if it becomes necessary."

Watson went on to ask several key questions of the attorney, including what options the city had under its existing municipal code to compel change, if the city had ability to regulate HACHR's activity with the existing needle exchange ordinance or if a modified ordinance would enhance the city's authority, and what the state's certification of HACHR meant, functionally, for municipalities.

"Does local authority/regulations supersede their state certification," Watson asked. "Could Eureka shut them down if necessary?"

"It is important that we fully understand the issues, HACHR's certification and standing to operate, and the city's options so we can work together to find a path forward," Watson's email concluded. "We prefer the carrot over the stick but if the stick becomes necessary, we want to be able to proceed judiciously and on solid legal ground."

Watson indicated that once staff had this legal background in hand, one next step might be to meet with all involved parties and "schedule a meeting in an attempt to constructively solve these issues with HACHR's full, voluntary cooperation," but that would be at the discretion of Lotter.

Several days later, on Feb. 5, 2020, EPD Sgt. Greg Hill attended HACHR's open house. He reported observing a man who appeared to be under the influence of opiates leaving the building's bathroom after hours. The man's presence seemed to surprised Smith, who Hill described as "flustered, nervous," with visibly shaking hands. Hill, who supervises the department's Problem Oriented Policing unit, initiated a surveillance operation of HACHR early the following month. In May, Watson and Stephens authorized the undercover operation that produced the video.

The meeting Watson suggested with stakeholders to constructively solve the issues surrounding HACHR never happened. COVID-19 and the departure of Lotter (who left his position just four months into the job) complicated things but so, too, did the investigation, Watson said. Having such a meeting during an open investigation, Watson wrote in an email to the Journal, would have been problematic.

Smith, reflecting on the months during which the investigation was taking place, said she was unaware of the burgeoning trouble. Her predecessor, Brandie Wilson, had been the focus of a great deal of criticism. Many of HACHR's supporters, speaking during public comment, point toward her tenure and the young organization's growing pains as the source of the city's frustration. The city's syringe exchange ordinance required quarterly reports from HACHR, a requirement Wilson said her organization did not have to adhere to as it was under state — not city —jurisdiction. Public criticism, fueled by online groups, spilled over into threats of violence and Wilson left the position in June 2019. Shortly afterward, then City Manager Greg Sparks reached out to Smith and asked for a quarterly report. She sent back a nine-month cumulative report. After that, she says, the city was quiet.

"The city was not asking for reports," Smith said, adding that she did have the opportunity to speak to neighbors who were critical of HACHR's presence but those interactions were largely civil. "I thought, 'Things are eerily quiet around here,' nobody was reaching out, yelling."

Smith and Watson exchanged emails on Feb. 11, 2020, about an incident in which an officer arrested one consumer onsite, just a few days after Hill attended HACHR's open house. The tone of the emails suggest a relationship finding its footing, with Smith saying, "HACHR is still committed to having a functional, positive relationship with EPD and we hope that it will go both ways."

Watson replied that this statement was meaningful to him and invited Smith to sit down sometime to "discuss constructive solutions." But he pushed back on Smith's assertion that officers were targeting HACHR to make arrests.

"I know you've asked that EPD not be present in the neighborhood during hours you are open but, as I thought I conveyed previously, I cannot promise that," he wrote. "We have a job to do. That neighborhood has significant, ongoing problems and concerns and we have rightfully concerned neighbors to answer to as well. In fact, we just met with a group of troubled citizens on this very topic ... The bottom line is that while we have no designs to intentionally disrupt your operations during the hours you are open, or to 'harass' your clients, HACHR isn't analogous to a no-extradition country. We enforce the law equitably across the city and officers aren't expected to ignore crimes they on-view."

Months later, a July 29 email from Luna to Black, Watson and Slattery (then interim City Manager) suggests that as EPD's investigation was winding down, the city's lawyers were hard at work making the city's case to present to CDPH.

"I received hundreds of pages of documents in response to my (public records act) request to the CDPH regarding HACHR, but this one stood out," Luna wrote. "... it is HACHR's short yearly report to CDPH from 2019. I find their representations to the CDPH to fall somewhere between a rose-colored glasses view and outright lies."

The report Luna attached to the email included syringe exchange data indicating a 106-percent return rate on used needles and statistics on case referrals; it also detailed a description of HACHR's efforts to build relationships with law enforcement and the larger community, reporting that a "small but vocal part of the community that does not understand our work has grown increasingly quieter."

An email to Luna from the Journal requesting context for her email went unreturned.

Allen, who became HACHR's executive director in July, found out about the investigation and the city's letter to CDPH at the same time as everyone else — when the city issued a press release.

"It felt ... not great," they said.

The Dec. 10 meeting of the Eureka City Council, during which the city repealed and replaced its existing syringe exchange ordinance to prohibit the distribution of needles within city limits, was notable for a number of reasons. A single-topic meeting, it nonetheless stretched from 7 until 11:30 p.m., and drew 63 people for public comment. Like all city council meetings during the pandemic, it was held virtually, with public officials and staff weighing in from their private homes. It was the last meeting for Heidi Messner and Austin Allison, whose terms began roughly the same time as HACHR's arrival. Allison, a cardiac monitor technician, said he had seen firsthand the impact of addiction, HIV, hepatitis C and overdoses in his work at the emergency room, and that he felt troubled having to make the decision to hobble HACHR.

"I feel sick to my stomach," he said as the matter came to a vote. "I feel awful that we've come to this place. Harm reduction saves lives ... but, yeah, this whole thing feels awful. It's awful that we've come to this place where we have to disrupt people's lives."

Nevertheless, he joined Bergel and Messner in a 3-2 majority at the end of the meeting.

Allen, who had called this decision "reprehensible," in an earlier statement, logged off. Noting that it was the final meeting for Allison and Messner, the assembled council and staff engaged in a weary round of applause, then logged off as well. Staff is currently drafting a more permanent ordinance that will determine how future harm reduction services operate within city limits.

The city council — with the freshly elected Bauer and Katie Moulton having replaced Messner and Allison — is expected to weigh in on the new ordinance within the next few months.

Linda Stansberry (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She lives in Eureka.

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Linda Stansberry

Linda Stansberry

Bio:
Linda Stansberry was a staff writer of the North Coast Journal from 2015 to 2018.

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