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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lynn Everson provides safety and support through needle exchange program

Lynn Everson runs the needle exchange program at Spokane Regional Health District. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The homeless, the addicted and those escaping abuse at what they once considered “home” are about to lose one of their greatest advocates.

For the past three decades, Lynn Everson has greeted society’s outcasts with a cookie, a clean needle and a welcome ear. In March, Everson, 69, will pass out her last box of syringes.

“Fear can be paralyzing,” Everson said. “Am I afraid of being homeless? Hell, yes. But that shouldn’t stop me from giving to someone in need. What I’m doing makes me feel better. Doing nothing makes me feel terrible.”

Everson, the needle exchange coordinator for Spokane Regional Health District, will officially retire in March after helping organize Spokane’s first shelter, now known as Hope House, which catered to women. That effort began at the same time serial killer Robert Lee Yates Jr. was stalking victims on East Sprague.

Someone once chased Everson in a van, later linked to Yates, from East Sprague to downtown before she sought refuge by running into the now-closed Dead End Tavern. The encounter occurred during the several-year run when Everson would drive her own van, which she named “Gloria,” to East Sprague to serve those women working as prostitutes.

While those encounters made news, Everson has spent a career working every day with persons with horrible drug addictions, untreated mental illnesses and the stigma of homelessness.

“It’s not always the big stuff that makes me happy,” she said. “The other night, it was really nice and quiet in the needle exchange … and a young man came in.”

The man, who was from another country, started talking to Everson about the food his grandmother and aunts and his mother used to make.

“He struggles now with a terrible addiction. He’s still homeless, still strung out,” Everson said. “But we had about 15 minutes where he got to share those memories with someone who wanted to listen to him. It wasn’t rocket science. It was a connection and a safe place for a few minutes.”

‘Part of life’

Through the years, Everson has worked with gang members and drug dealers. A couple of them once walked her out of a situation downtown that was about to get violent.

But mostly, her day involved “schlepping boxes” of syringes, and cotton balls, and packing five-gallon sharps containers.

“They are coming in to exchange their used syringes to collect sterile ones,” she said. “We have a take-a-number machine because people were having issues about whose turn was first. I tell people, ‘This is my way or the highway universe.’ They know.”

But the job comes with dangers. About 10 years ago, an agitated boyfriend came to the needle exchange and somehow flung a dirty needle toward Everson and the needle stuck in her arm right where a nurse would have placed it for a flu shot.

“It was awful. My boss took me to (Providence) Sacred Heart. I took HIV meds for 28 days … to reduce the chance that you become positive,” she said.

She fought nausea and headaches for that month. While she did not contract the virus, she said the illness, which is mostly spread through sharing dirty needles and by having unprotected sex, still carries the fear of the unknown.

“When I started this job in 1989, the stigma was terrible,” she said. “When we announced we would have the needle exchange, we would have public meetings. People would say we shouldn’t be doing it, that it was God’s will that people die if they have HIV or AIDS.

“My hope now is that people are more educated about the risk,” she continued. “But people still treat people with cancer as though they are contagious. We work with people who have hepatitis C, B, A and HIV. That’s just part of life.”

Mostly, Everson said, her job entails providing drug users with the education and the tools to avoid making their bad situations worse by contracting diseases.

“It’s all about education,” she said. “We talk to people about why they shouldn’t share. Because of the needle exchange, there are less infections from drug users.”

Rob McCann, president of Catholic Charities, who recently announced a $4.48 million project to build a 51-unit building on the east end of downtown that will house formerly homeless people, doesn’t personally know Everson but knows of her work.

The leading causes of “homelessness are addiction and mental illness,” McCann said. “Someone like Lynn has been on the forefront of that and trying to ease the suffering of people for many, many years.

“She has been a blessing to the community and the very vulnerable, fragile people she works with.”

‘Story’ of the homeless

Not every person she helps each weekday is homeless.

“There is a disconnect,” Everson said. “The world sees people we work with as pretty horrible with no redeemable virtues. We see them as wounded human beings, who are often kind to others.”

She relayed the story of an elderly homeless woman she sometimes sees at the corner of First Avenue and Cedar Street.

“The first time I saw her, it’s clear she has a lot of troubles,” Everson said. “I gave her $5 and she told me a story. I didn’t see her for a while. The next time I saw her, I gave her $5 and she gave me a story. I felt like I got something worthwhile out of that.”

Former Spokane police Chief Roger Bragdon once asked Everson why she gave money to homeless people, who may then use the money to buy drugs or alcohol.

Everson’s response: “What if they go out and buy drugs or alcohol? I said give it to them. It’s not my money anymore and I don’t have to worry about it.

“If I hold out a helping hand,” she continued, “they feel better and I feel better. The problem with homelessness and addiction is overwhelming. So, I do the little things I can do to help make it better.”

Everson also fights what she calls the false narrative about “welfare queens” or persons who stand at intersections with a hand out despite owning nice vehicles.

“Somebody might have a nicer truck than you, but they might have lost their job and their house,” she said. “You don’t need to judge people when you don’t have all the facts.”

She relayed the story of someone complaining about a Thanksgiving event that included a turkey giveaway that didn’t prevent someone from collecting more than one turkey.

“I said, if someone is willing to go to more places to get another turkey to feed their family, good for them,” Everson said. “I hope they are able to feed their family.”

Hanging needles up

While the Health District hasn’t chosen Everson’s replacement, she has been upfront to all of her clients about her departure.

Engaging with addicted clients every day can exact a toll, she said.

“I love my job, but it’s very emotionally stressful,” Everson said. “Folks suffer every day. The people I work with suffer every single day. It’s hard to see that.”

Many of the people who come to the needle exchange believe it will close when Everson leaves.

“I say, ‘No. Someone else will take over,’ ” Everson said. “We will look for someone who is compassionate and knows what is going on.”

Eventually, Everson will find “a volunteer gig,” probably with the House of Charity because she admires that they “serve everyone.”

“In the beginning, I’m going to sleep in,” she said, referring to her impending retirement. “I’m going to get up, make good coffee and read the newspaper, if I can still afford it. Hopefully, there will be less stress in my life.”