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Wenatchee nonprofit director ‘disappointed’ after elected official suggests cutting funding over syringe program

Rachel Todd, YWCA North Central Washington executive director  (Courtesy of YWCA North Central Washington)
By Oscar Rodriguez Wenatchee World

WENATCHEE – A local nonprofit director said she’s disappointed with the conduct of public officials after one county commissioner suggested he would vote to cut their funding over the startup of a syringe exchange program.

Rachel Todd, YWCA North Central Washington executive director, along with other proponents of the program, spoke to commissioners from Chelan and Douglas counties about funding they had secured and plans to establish a potentially yearlong syringe services program.

Todd told the Wenatchee World that the YWCA had identified a “huge gap” in the area’s harm-reduction services, particularly the lack of an syringe program with various local entities interested in a program like this.

“We believe this is the right thing to do, and if we can fill that gap, if we can facilitate someone’s recovery journey without shame and without judgement, then that is definitely something that falls in line with our organizational values,” she said.

The program would be a mobile unit providing a “wide range of harm reduction resources,” one of them syringes. A syringe would need to be exchanged for another syringe as part of the program.

As stated by Thriving Together NCW Executive Director John Schapman at the Tuesday meeting, the main goals for the program include:

  • Reducing the need for acute medical care by individuals who use dirty syringes and result in infections and increase hospital and medical needs.
  • Reduce the number of dirty needles in the community as the program requires people bring in a needle which is then safely disposed of through the program.

But the primary driver for the program is to connect people who interact with the program to existing recovery services, Schapman said.

Todd, Schapman and other presenters spoke to the “overwhelming amount of research and data,” and offered personal anecdotes that speak to the success of programs like this one in other areas, like in Grant County, for example.

Joseph Hunter, recovery coach network manager with Thriving Together NCW, shared his personal journey recovering from drug addiction and said the jail system, medical system had failed him, and offered him no hope that recovery was possible.

Hunter, who’s also a Chelan-Douglas Health District board member, said the syringe program would offer help and understanding to people struggling with addiction.

He also spoke about the stigma that people struggling with addiction that prevents them from seeking help. He mentioned during his addiction he would get abscesses from using dirty needles and would delay seeking medical attention out of shame.

Chelan County Commissioner Shon Smith asked Hunter if he thought he would have asked for help if he hadn’t developed abscesses.

Hunter said there wasn’t any way for him to answer that but reiterated that a syringe program is a good first step.

“An SSP is a good start for that population because there’s going to be somebody there like me, who’s going to humanize that person who relates with where they’re at,” he said. “And I’m going to motivate them and support them and offer resources that are here.”

Commissioners and members of the audience in attendance, on the other hand, overwhelmingly voiced their opposition about the possibility of a needle exchange program. Only a few voices among the public attending Tuesday’s meeting were in support of the program.

Commissioners from both counties expressed concern that the program would increase crime or perpetuate an ongoing drug problem in Chelan and Douglas counties.

Douglas County Commissioner Kyle Steinburg asked the proponents if they had considered the “unintended consequences,” suggesting that a service like this would “perpetuate illegal, illicit substance abuse.”

Todd reiterated to commissioners several times during the meeting that research and data shows the positive impacts syringe programs have on communities. Partners in Okanogan and Grant counties had also shared their success implementing syringe programs without seeing any decreases in public safety, Schapman said.

Steinburg said the evidence would need to be “overwhelming” because statistics can be “manipulated.”

“The sentiment of the crowd is ‘seeing is believing,’” he said. “And no matter what the statistics say, we’ve all been to Portland, we’ve been to Seattle. We’ve seen these places that were mentioned that are rundown with needles lying all over the streets.”

Steinburg also noted that the idea of a syringe program had been proposed to and rejected by the Chelan-Douglas Health District Board of Health in the past. The board of health voiced their opposition toward a syringe program in May 2019 after a health director presentation. The board at the time was composed of elected officials but has since then doubled in size to include healthcare professionals, minorities among others.

Julie Rickard, a psychologist and founder of the North Central Suicide Prevention Coalition, said that not doing anything about the area’s drug problem would exacerbate the issue.

“This, ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality … assumes that people aren’t already here, they’re already here using, they’re getting needles from somewhere,” she said. “What we’re doing about it is nothing right now, putting people in a homeless encampment creates Seattle, not doing something about it creates Seattle.”

Rickard also added that the drug problem is not limited to homeless individuals, and instead includes “professionals” and other “middle class” people. “The problem is more widespread than we think.”

“The problem starts with our primary care,” she said. “Those problems then filter down into the future into other things. We have system issues that need to be addressed. But now, we have lots of people in our community that already have this problem. This is one piece of that solution. That’s it, it’s just one little piece.”

Chelan County Commissioner Tiffany Gering compared the program to “handing people the gun when they have bullets” while Smith compared distributing syringes to giving out “candy.”

“Maybe they don’t want that kind of help,” Smith said. “Maybe they need help have food or first aid supplies or water, things that will bring them to the van rather than we’re already doing all of that rather than more candy.”

Rickard responded by saying that the syringe program would not be handing out “candy” and that organizations are already distributing food and water.

Chelan County Commissioner Kevin Overbay asked if this was the best time to start a syringe program as a detox facility and other important infrastructure related to drug recovery are not currently operating but might be in the future.

Rickard said the syringe program would be one part of a whole system they’re working toward. She added that the syringe program is not intended to single-handedly solve the drug problem.

“We are building a system that has to help people at the time that they’re ready,” Rickard said. “But we have to start baking in these little seeds before we can get there. And I believe that this is just one of those pieces. It’s not the full monty.”

The program itself is at this time partially funded with a total $150,000. Thriving Together NCW, Amerigroup and Carelon are the only entities at this time that have committed funds toward the project.

Public funds from the county or the city, for example, are not being used for this program and YWCA, which will be managing the program, is a private nonprofit.

The funds would go toward purchasing a cargo van, as well as staffing one position along with an education series ahead of the project’s launch.

The program is still in its early stages, but Todd said that any “direct delivery” of services wouldn’t begin until about five or six months. Todd said the program would be funded for a year but potentially longer depending on the results.

Steinburg said he’s not sure if he could “financially support” an organization that supports syringe program programs.

Chelan and Douglas counties, among other public entities, provide funding to the YWCA among other for the array of services they provide, including transitional and emergency housing programs.

“I don’t want to seem punitive when it comes around to funding cycles for other things, but I wanted you to have all the information on your plate when you make a decision whether to do this or not,” Steinburg said.

Rickard called Steinburg’s statement a “veiled threat.” Steinburg added that he does not speak for the entire Douglas County Commission, but the syringe program would factor into any future decision of his.

Todd told The World she was disappointed that “it’s gotten to the point of threats.”

“I made sure from the beginning that the SSP is completely separate from anything within our housing programs,” she said. “We are running them as model programs. And the fact that some are wanting to take those away from the community is really heartbreaking.”

Todd also added that she went into the meeting in the “spirit of collaboration and information sharing” but instead walked into what was “clear intimidation and a bullying tactic.”