Connect with us


James Donaldson: An Organizer’s Long Legacy

The author Sam Keen once told me that James Donaldson was the only person he ever knew who became a social worker because he needed the money. But when Donaldson shaped this city – and changed my life – social work was still in his distant future.

Rev. Jim Conn




James Donaldson organized supply trucks that brought essentials from his Valley church to Watts during the 1965 riots.

Some of the wealthiest, most famous and most powerful figures in the world call Los Angeles their home. No one would mistake James Donaldson for one of those. Sam Keen, the author and writer for Psychology Today, once told me that Donaldson was the only person he ever knew who became a social worker because he needed the money. But when Donaldson shaped this city – and changed my life – social work was still in his distant future.

James Donaldson came to Los Angeles from the publishing world to be Theologian-in-Residence at a mainline church in Woodland Hills, when that was the western edge of the suburbs. A seminary graduate from Texas, he involved his affluent congregation in reflection using the tools of the culture – films, museums, books. And he connected the suburbanites to an African-American church in South Los Angeles.

During the curfew that followed the Watts Riots in 1965, the link between those two churches became a pipeline of survival. Short on water, food, diapers and other goods people needed to live, the Valley church filled a truck every day and delivered these staples into South Los Angeles. It changed the lives of those people – especially the ones in the truck.

It also led to the next change in Donaldson’s Los Angeles sojourn. Following those social upheavals, the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race put money into Los Angeles to empower the black community through a network of congregations. There are several of those networks now, but none then. The Corridor Ministry took its name from the swath of jet noise from the flight path into Los Angeles International Airport. The Corridor started at what was then the eastern segregation line of Alameda Street and moved west across South Los Angeles to the mostly-all-white, but already changing, Inglewood.

Donaldson used his energy, intelligence and charisma to organize a hundred congregations in a short time, packed with intense meetings and several notable successes, including a commitment by the Los Angeles Community College system for a campus in South Los Angeles.

During both his Valley and South Los Angeles time, he recruited participants for a series of weekend theological trainings run by the Chicago-based Ecumenical Institute. The workshops aimed to radicalize clergy and church people. I am sure I met Donaldson during that time, but he came after me one day in Claremont, where I was a seminary student. Because we were exempt from the Selective Service, he wanted us to support draft resisters at the downtown Los Angeles induction center. We did.

Then as I began an internship year in the city, he asked me for more. Donaldson had shifted gears again, forming a branch of New Adult Community in Los Angeles and orchestrating its signature event, the Urban Plunge. New Adult Communities were a national network of experiments by major denominations to connect with the emerging youth culture. The Urban Plunge, created by people in Chicago, immersed college youth and suburban church people in the urban scene. Donaldson asked me to coordinate the logistics of a Plunge here.

So I did. Eighteen months in a row. Over a weekend, the Plunge took 100-some participants at a time from an urban church basement to the bars and peep shows of old Main Street and Hollywood, to the Black Congress in South L.A. and to meet with Brown Berets in East L.A., then to church with a rock band (unheard of in those days) and dancing on the pews (still unheard of). Not much on sleep, it mirrored the intensity of the late 1960s itself.

The Plunge became an organizing tool, which led to communal living experiments, participation in war protests, efforts to stop the nuclear power plant at San Onofre, leafleting grocery stores for the farm workers, and a white presence on the street during the Black Panthers/LAPD shootout. Meanwhile Donaldson assisted draft card burnings on college campuses and helped smuggle draft resistors into Canada.

Then it was over. Donaldson headed “back to the land” as people said in those days. The man who told me I was intelligent and taught me to read books – not just for grades but for the meaning they gave my life – and who shoved me into leading, walked out of my life for two decades. First to Glorieta, New Mexico, then to Twisp, Washington.

That’s it. No fame or fortune or power. On January 7, he died – a retired social worker, yes, but a theologian, activist and organizer to the end – surrounded by friends who joined him in caring for the earth and one another.

Sometime back, maybe a decade, a hundred or so mostly-white clergy were packed into a room at one of the union halls in Los Angeles. The facilitator asked us to introduce ourselves and say how we experienced our political awakening as faith leaders. One by one it became apparent that for most of us of a certain age in that room, it was the work of James Donaldson that had formed our lives through one project or another. He lived here a brief time, but he left a long legacy.


Beyond Feinstein: A Twelve-Year-Old Climate Activist Finds Her Voice

Bay Area seventh grader helps to organize San Francisco student protests as part of Friday’s “Climate Strike.”

Sasha Abramsky




Samantha, center, with fellow members of her school's Warriors for Justice club. (photo: Barni Ahmed Qaasim)

“If I were in her place, I would not be threatened by 12 youths. I’d listen to what they were saying. I’d say, ‘I’ll think about it,’ and I’d leave it at that,” states Samantha, one of the young environmental activists who recently challenged Senator Dianne Feinstein for not endorsing the Green New Deal. Instead of listening, however, Feinstein got testy with the schoolkids, pushed her own, more limited policy proposals and pulled rank on them by noting how many times she had successfully won re-election to the Senate. The kids, in turn, told California’s senior senator that “we’re asking you to be brave” and to support the Green New Deal.

Not surprisingly, footage of the confrontation between the 85-year-old senator and the tweens went viral.

Samantha, who was amongst those present at Feinstein’s office, is a 12-year-old seventh grader who will be part of today’s Climate Strike, in which kids plan to stay out of school to protest governmental inaction on climate change (she asked that her last name, and the name of her middle school, not be used in this article). Extraordinarily politically savvy, she is fast becoming known in the Bay Area for her organizing skills and ability to articulate what is at stake for her generation in the climate change struggles. “I didn’t understand why she [Feinstein] was telling us how many years she’d been in office and how many times she was elected,” she says. “She gave us her own resolution, which we were not very fond of. There were conflicting feelings in that office. She wasn’t following what science said. I’ve read both Green New Deals, and hers has less information.”

1,000 students will convene at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco office Friday to talk Green New Deal

Since that meeting, Samantha’s life has been something of a whirlwind. In many ways she is just a regular 12-year-old – she likes hanging out with her friends, singing songs, retelling jokes found online – but her routine is now interrupted by requests for interviews; by people asking her if she has political ambitions; and by invitations to attend conferences and activist workshops.

Samantha will be helping coordinate today’s walkout at her school. The activists will join an expected 1,000 youth from around the region as they convene at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco office to talk Green New Deal, and then march through the streets to Feinstein’s office. They will be part of a global mobilization of young people participating in a range of climate-related actions.

“I would describe myself as an artist and a writer and a warrior,” says Samantha. “I’m more comfortable saying my opinion because I have something to stand for now.”

As young people around the world increasingly turn to school walkouts and strikes to highlight the urgency of global warming, Samantha, whose ancestry is a mix of Cambodian and Mexican, has found her voice on this truly global issue; and, in turn, local activist groups – her school’s Warriors for Justice club as well as a Bay Area organization called Youth vs. Apocalypse — have found that her voice is a powerful one to have on board.

“I was blown away,” Carolyn Norr, of, the parent group to Youth vs. Apocalypse, recalled of the essay Samantha wrote, while in 6th grade, about how she would protest the situating of a coal terminal at the Oakland port. Samantha’s teacher had been so impressed by the writing that she passed it along to Norr, who works with kids in Oakland schools on a range of environmental issues.

Norr encouraged Samantha to apply for a Youth vs. Apocalypse fellowship. Even though she was technically too young for the program, her speaking and writing skills were such that Norr was willing to bend a little to bring her into a space where she could work on building her activist and organizing efforts with children her own age.

Young people around the world are increasingly turning to school walkouts and strikes to highlight the urgency of global warming

It was a wise call. In the year since, Samantha has confronted politicians such as Feinstein on global warming and, most recently, was part of a group invited to Harvard University to hold a workshop on youth organizing efforts. She has shot YouTube segments explaining the urgency of tackling climate change, and has become a leading local presence in preparations for today’s Climate Strike.

“They’re really owning their power,” Samantha’s teacher, Cory Jong, says of Warriors for Justice. “And using their voices and talking about how youth are powerful. Samantha is fierce and passionate and focused – and extremely talented. She’s determined to fight to make sure this is a shift in political discourse.”

Samantha’s mother, Eunice, agrees. “She’s more aware than I am,” says Eunice. “She’s enlightened me more. I believe she’s going to be a really positive leader; she’ll be up there. Hopefully a president – someone who makes a really good contribution to our country.”

Copyright Capital & Main

Continue Reading


Homeless Deaths Are on the Rise: L.A. County Officials Ask Why

California’s homeless crisis has been fueled by gentrification and an affordable housing shortage that is especially acute in such job-rich urban areas as Los Angeles and San Francisco.





Daniel Duarte, described by his sister as “artistic and intelligent,” was one of the 917 homeless people in Los Angeles County who died in 2018.

Like too many homeless people, Duarte, a father of a 2-year-old girl, died violently, shot in what police told reporters was a random, gang-motivated attack while living in a homeless encampment on the Arroyo Seco flood control channel in Northeast Los Angeles. Most homeless people – nearly 60 percent—did not die of natural causes in 2018.

This year’s 10 percent increase in homeless deaths over last year’s is noteworthy because the total number of homeless people in the county declined by four percent between 2017 and 2018.

County officials are trying to understand what is behind the rise in the number and rate of homeless deaths. In 2010, the rate of death for every 10,000 homeless people in the county was 111; last year it was 174.

Key statistics

  • Homeless deaths in 2017: 836
  • Homeless deaths in 2018: 917
  • Number of homeless people in LA County in 2017: 55,048
  • Number of homeless people in L.A. County in 2018: 52,765
  • Rate of death per 10,000 homeless in 2010: 111
  • Rate of death per 10,000 homeless in 2018: 174

All manner of mortality—suicide, deaths from natural causes, homicides, and death by accident—have been increasing over the past six years, according to a presentation the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner made to deputies from the offices of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors earlier this month. The type of death that has seen the biggest rise, however, is accidental death, and the most commonly reported accidental death is a drug overdose.

The rising number of deaths due to drug overdoses may be linked to the national opioid epidemic, although it is too soon to tell for sure, according to Will Nicholas, director of the L.A. County Center for Health Impact Evaluation. He is working to match information available on death certificates issued by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health with data collected by the coroner’s office. The coroner does not investigate every death in the county, but is more likely to look into deaths in the homeless population, according to Nicholas.

“Homelessness is at crisis levels in L.A., so we’re interested in learning what we can about causes of death among the homeless, so we can better target our health-care resources,” says Nicholas, whose center is part of the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

  *   *   *

California’s homeless crisis has been fueled by gentrification and an affordable housing shortage that is especially acute in such job-rich urban areas as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The lack of shelter is felt keenly by older people, who, according to Nicholas, are becoming an ever larger part of the homeless population, which may also explain the escalating death rate.

Homeless Deaths Have Been Rising in Los Angeles County


 Source: Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office

The oldest homeless Angeleno to die last year was an 87-year-old woman who passed away in a hospital in Pasadena of congestive heart failure, according to the coroner’s database. The youngest: an 8-week-old baby, who perished in his mother’s arms while she was nursing him on a Los Angeles city bus.

Homeless people were 15 times more likely than the general public to be victims of homicides in 2017, according to this month’s coroner’s office presentation. The rate of suicide was more than nine times higher, and the rate of accidental deaths – including drug overdose or alcohol poisoning – was 25 times as high. January is the deadliest month to be homeless, beating out December and July by small margins, according to five years of data analyzed by the coroner’s office. Two-thirds of homeless people were men in 2018, but men accounted for four-fifths of the deaths among the homeless.

Frederick Murphy, a graffiti artist and activist who has been homeless for eight months, can attest to the perils of living on the street. He’s always on his guard and feels as though he’s a target because he is young and has possessions, including the surf board on which he is painting a stylized “God Save LA.” Murphy became homeless after breaking up with his live-in girlfriend, and getting priced out of a downtown loft he shared with two roommates.

“You can’t trust anyone on the street,” says Murphy, who, in his black cap and tapered pants, looks like he could fit in at one of Echo Park’s nearby coffee shops. “I have to keep a knife around, which is not a good thing for me.” Murphy, who says he is on a wait-list for housing, also complains of harassment by police and of having his tent damaged in the recent rains.

Earlier in the day, adds Murphy, who is 31, confronted another homeless man rummaging through his tent, who threw a stick at him. He lifts his shirt and reveals a v-shaped cut on his pale chest.

Half a mile away, in Angelino Heights, the blue and white flowers have wilted on two heart-shaped wreaths laid at the address where a 33-year-old woman was found hanging from a tree in mid-December. Candles had been lit at a gathering about two weeks ago outside a house with broken windows, where people had been squatting, according to Leticia Monreal, a neighbor who was walking her dog. “It’s been like that for years,” Monreal says, referring to squatters. The house is now surrounded by a new-looking chain-link fence that is locked with a padlock.

Copyright Capital & Main

Continue Reading


Martin Luther King Jr. on Inequality and Health Care

From a 1966 Chicago speech before the Medical Committee for Human Rights.





“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.”

Continue Reading


The Big Chill: L.A.’s Homeless Face the Winter With Fewer Beds Than Before

With more money than ever to spend on homelessness, Los Angeles County offers fewer winter shelter beds than last year. Why?





Cheryl Jackson, pictured at a winter shelter in Pacoima, has struggled to find stable employment since moving to Los Angeles. (Photo: Jessica Goodheart)

“Everything that goes wrong in a city” gets blamed on the program and its clients, says the executive director of one homeless service provider.

It’s a December evening at the Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission’s winter shelter in Pacoima, a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. A mix of homeless men and women talk quietly, in English and in Spanish, while they eat their franks and beans, as others are still having their bags searched at the door, and still others are grabbing blankets and staking out cots.

Ken Craft, the mission’s soft-spoken CEO, is seated at one of end of the large, brightly lit room. He seems worried. As the weather grows colder and homeless Angelenos learn how to access the shelter through its various pickup locations, this 138-bed facility will reach capacity and homeless people will be turned away, he predicts.

Forest Lawn Memorial Park attendees hold candles to honor homeless persons who died in the Glendale area in 2018. (Photo: Joanne Kim)

Los Angeles city and county officials are stepping up efforts to combat homelessness, and residents have voted to tax themselves to pay for an increase in homeless services overall. But this year, the county has 21 percent fewer winter shelter beds than last year, according to data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the county’s main administrator of homeless services. The number of winter shelter beds available during the coldest months of the year dropped from 1,451 to 1,146.

This should be cause for concern. From January 1, 2016 to December 21, 2018, hypothermia was listed as the primary or secondary cause of death for 10 homeless people, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office.

Seven of 10 homeless hypothermia deaths happened in December or January. Most who died were men in their 50s and 60s.

In 2017, county voters—faced with an exploding homeless population of more than 50,000—supported Measure H, a 0.25-cent sales tax hike intended to increase homeless services and prevention. (The prior year, city voters had approved Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure intended to fund 10,000 units of permanent housing over the next decade.) This year, $120 million of Measure H dollars went to funding “interim housing.” The goal is to add 3,250 year-round shelter beds to what’s already available and move homeless people into permanent housing, according Phil Ansell, director of the County of Los Angeles Homeless Initiative.

Tabatha Kauhola and her boyfriend, Hampton, at the Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission’s winter shelter in Pacoima. (Photo: Jessica Goodheart)

But those funds are not paying for more beds for the winter shelter program, a 15-year-old hypothermia prevention effort that providers say is a critical resource, if not the most effective way of connecting homeless people to permanent housing and services. Such shelters are generally open from early December through March and house people for just 14 hours daily, creating logistical challenges for service providers and their homeless clients, who must be rousted from their beds in the early mornings and find their way back in the evening. Homeless people benefit from more stable housing, from where they can look for jobs and take advantage of services.

Many providers who ran winter shelter programs in the past are now running year-round facilities and no longer have the capacity to open separate shelters for the winter, according to Raquel Ziegler, Crisis Housing Coordinator for LAHSA.

Managers of winter shelter programs often face exacting fire safety requirements and operational hassles — as well as neighborhood opposition.

Ziegler is not satisfied with the number of beds available through the winter shelter program, however. “It would be great if we had an additional 2,000 emergency shelter beds pop open during the season,” Ziegler said. But those managing the program often face exacting fire safety requirements and operational hassles — as well as neighborhood opposition.

“Everything that goes wrong in a city” gets blamed on the program and its clients, says Laura Duncan, executive director of Ascencia, a homeless service provider in Glendale that ran a winter shelter last year. At Forest Lawn Memorial Park, during a recent Ascencia-sponsored memorial service for homeless people who died last year, Glendale City Councilwoman Paula Devine rattled off other challenges: “It’s so expensive,” “you have to find a huge facility,” and it attracts “homeless from all over.”

Seven of those 10 homeless hypothermia deaths happened in December or January. Most who died were men in their 50s and 60s. Last March, in Orange County, a homeless family of four, including two young children, were found dead in their van, apparently of carbon monoxide poisoning, when their car was left running to keep them warm while they slept.

Some regions have seen a dramatic decline in winter shelter beds this season. The vast Antelope Valley—with its thrashing desert winds and freezing night temperatures — has only 50 beds this winter compared to 178 last year, according to LAHSA.

Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission’s Ken Craft. (Photo: Jessica Goodheart)

There are costly consequences when homeless people have to find their own source of heat. Last Saturday, a fire that started at 7:10 a.m. at a homeless encampment in Palmdale caused $50,000 worth of damage to a business, according to the Antelope Valley Press. However, the lack of available beds might not be the only problem, as the nearby winter shelter reportedly had empty beds at the time.

Homeless clients may not want to leave their encampments for shelters only to be “booted out” before returning “to wherever it was that their encampment was,” said Carol Crabson, CEO of Lancaster-based Valley Oasis, who ran a winter shelter last year and would like to see the program provide 24-hour shelter, which it can do now only under extreme weather conditions. With temperatures plunging to the “mid-20s” at night, she said, her staff is “seeing a lot of people who are really sick.”

To satisfy neighbors’ concerns about loitering homeless people, the latter are not allowed to approach one Pacoima shelter by car or foot, but must wait for a van to fetch them.

For planning purposes, the county divides itself into eight regions or “service planning areas.” The South Los Angeles region has experienced a 30-percent decrease in winter shelter beds. And the South Bay/Harbor planning area has seen a 40-percent decline in winter shelter beds, even though its percentage of unsheltered homeless jumped by six percent last year. The East L.A. planning area has no winter shelters listed on its flyer this year, nor did it have any last year, even though the number of unsheltered homeless in the area also rose in 2018.

Early last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to cut his city’s unsheltered population of homeless in half during the next five years. Overall, the region saw a small decrease in homelessness in 2018 (four percent in the county and six percent in the city). However, more people are also falling into homelessness for the first time due to the county’s affordable housing shortage and the lack of good jobs, says Phil Ansell, director of the Los Angeles County Homeless Initiative. “We are successfully taking more water out of the boat than ever before,” he said. “But there remains a very significant hole in the bottom of the boat.”

Back in Pacoima at the Hope of the Valley winter shelter, Cheryl Jackson, who has been homeless since last February, is one who has fallen through that hole. She has struggled to support herself since moving to Los Angeles from Texas in 2007, even though, she says, she has a cosmetology license, has worked for years as an administrative assistant for medical centers, and still works as a home-health aide.

To satisfy neighbors’ concerns about loitering homeless people, Jackson, who is 57, is not allowed to approach the shelter by car or foot. Instead, she must wait in the winter dark for a white van to fetch her at one of five pick-up locations.

One woman arrived at the shelter at 9 p.m., only to be sent away to a pick-up spot. “Why do I have to go away? I’m here,” she asked.

That system was the result of a “good neighbor” policy, which L.A. City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez says she spearheaded in 2017 after Pacoima residents, joined by their “five-year-olds with signs,” protested the reopening of the Hope of the Valley shelter for the winter.

Neighbors were concerned about homeless people loitering as they waited each evening for the opening of the facility, which is located near two elementary schools. In addition to the establishment of pick-up sites, the policy required the hiring of a security and sanitation workers and the establishment of a feedback hotline, which Rodriguez said has received “zero calls.”

“Faced with the homelessness crisis, I had one of two options,” Rodriguez says. “I could either be that person that said, ‘No, we’re not going to do this,’ or figure out how to address the community’s concerns.”

On my mid-December visit to the Pacoima shelter, one woman with dark, shoulder-length hair arrived at 9 p.m. only to be sent away to a pick-up spot, where staff promised they would fetch her. She’s seemed frustrated and bewildered. “Why do I have to go away? I’m here,” she said.

But most people I met there, like Tabatha Kauhola and her boyfriend, Hampton, understood the system. Kauhola appreciated the welcoming staff and the warm meal, and didn’t complain about the austere cots, crammed together row by row. Her main grievance: the early wake-up time of 5 a.m., needed so the clients can be back in the van by 7.

Glendale firefighters attend memorial service for homeless persons. (Photo: Joanne Kim)

Homeless since 2014, Kauhola says she has lived in hotel rooms, at friends’ homes, in a car and in a tent beside the 405 Freeway. Domestic violence that led to head trauma precipitated her becoming homeless, she said. Prior to that, she had a job as a home-health-care aide, and an apartment in Van Nuys.

Now she and Hampton are hoping to find permanent housing and eventually reunite with their three young children. “Once we get housed, the light will be brighter. Then they will be able to come to our home,” she said.

A few tables away, Cheryl Jackson journals, a practice she has kept for almost 40 years and has passed on to a daughter, a University of California, Los Angeles graduate, who she nursed through hospitalizations connected to a blood disorder. She works to keep a hopeful outlook.

“I’m not bitter. I’m just maturing and learning how to put this together,” says Jackson, with a bright, disarming smile. “There is still something very wonderful happening.”

Copyright Capital & Main

Continue Reading


Los Angeles Renters Fight Back to Keep Their Pets — and Homes

Co-published by Beyond Chron
Evoking a previously unenforced “no pet” clause is one good way for property owners to empty a building before it’s put up for sale, or to push out low-rent tenants in a gentrifying area.

Carol Mithers




Photo courtesy of Downtown Dog Rescue

Co-published by Beyond Chron

The El Rancho Mobile Home Park in Compton, California, a cluster of aging trailers parked on a concrete slab was, nevertheless, an inviting place for low-wage tenants, thanks to its policies and prices. Even blue-collar workers could make the rent; kids and dogs were both welcome. Some tenants — Spanish-speaking house cleaners and baby-sitters, the elderly and disabled — had been there for decades. Although leases, written in English, specified dogs had to be under 25 pounds, the rule had never been enforced. Many households had bigger dogs — several, in fact.

So the notice that management tacked to their doors last May sparked panic: Residents had seven days to comply with the original rule or leave. The “choice” was no choice at all — turn in beloved animals at the local shelter or move to…well, nowhere. In a county with the nation’s largest gap between rent prices and average wages, the alternative to a $750 a month apartment is essentially the street.

But in early June three residents went to the monthly free animal care clinic run by Downtown Dog Rescue (DDR) in Compton. All had previously had their pets sterilized there, and they’d gotten word that this time there’d be a lawyer present. Longtime housing rights attorney Dianne Prado, sitting not far from the spaymobile, heard their stories and felt a familiar anger rising in her.

If the landlord accepted your pets for years, he can’t just say no now, she told them, adding, “This isn’t gonna happen.” Prado made a single phone call to the trailer park’s management company lawyer, Max Eggleston, and with the magic words, “I’m the attorney who represents…” the problem seemed to disappear. (Eggleston says that there was no change in policy, and that tenants have always been expected to “adhere to their leases.”) One of the tenants who’d already surrendered his dog to a county shelter reclaimed it, then phoned Prado crying, with his pet in his arms.

“A whole group of people about to be traumatized, 20-plus pets that were going to be added to the shelter population — nope,” Prado said. “Just like that, done.”

Los Angeles-area courts hear some 54,000 eviction cases each year, and no one knows how many more move “voluntarily” at the first landlord threat. Pet issues — sometimes legitimate, often not — are high on the list of why: Evoking a previously unenforced “no pet” clause is one good way for property owners to empty a building before it’s put up for sale, or to push out low-rent tenants in a gentrifying area.

Pets also hamper tenants from finding any housing at all — about half of Los Angeles’ rental units and most homeless shelters don’t allow them. The federal Fair Housing Act requires landlords to make “reasonable accommodation” for tenants with physical or mental disabilities, a requirement that includes accepting certified service or emotional support animals. But tenants can’t insist on rights if they don’t know they have them.

Enter Prado’s public interest law firm, the Housing Equality and Advocacy Resource Team (HEART), and the legal services offered by the Inner City Law Center via DDR’s Pet Resource Center on Skid Row. These parallel efforts may represent the first time no-cost attorneys have focused solely on pets as the driver of housing problems. They also mark a powerful merger of movements: the struggles for social justice and for animal welfare.

The South Los Angeles Animal Shelter, located on 60th St. near Western Ave., echoes with the crash of bottles from a next-door recycling plant and the frenzied barking of 300-plus dogs. On a recent fall day, Prado was conducting business on a folding table near the shelter’s intake office, armed with a laptop, phone and legal forms. Her first client, referred by an animal rescue group, was a Latina in her 40s who’d brought her teenage daughter and a thick file folder of papers. Their landlord had sent a “Notice to Quit” the $642-a-month apartment below Baldwin Hills that the mother had rented for decades because of a terrier named Cookie.

“But we’ve had the dog for five years!” she told Prado, adding that it had been classified an emotional support animal for her daughter, who was being treated for anxiety and depression. The girl said nothing but looked down at her hands.

No te preocupes,” Prado ordered, then in a rush of alternately reassuring and indignant Spanish — when injustice riles her, she talks like a tape recorder set on fast — explained that she would take the case, “todo es gratis.” In the time it took her client to sign a representation agreement, she had left a message for the landlord’s lawyer, pulled out a flyer with immigration information, and pointed toward the shelter’s main office, where the terrier’s license could be renewed. (The dog was already spayed; every family getting Prado’s representation has or will have a sterilized pet.)


Two women, currently employed, appeared with a dog and a blizzard of contradictory notices about having to leave their Boyle Heights rental. Prado got to work.

It’s a more crowded and grimmer scene at the weekly Pet Resource clinic. Dozens of pet owners, over half of them homeless, arrive on foot at a dead-end street off Seventh St. and Central Ave., some bearing animals in shopping carts and bicycle baskets. Los Angeles Animal Services workers offer vouchers for free spay and neuter surgery; DDR volunteers provide bags of food and other supplies. Meanwhile, an attorney and paralegal work the lines in a low-key way. “How’re you doing? Good to see you! Any other problems you need help with today?”

Mental health and addiction issues are the norm here, and “sometimes it takes a few meetings to build trust,” says James Gilliam, the Inner City Law Center’s directing attorney. That was how he encountered a 65-year-old Latina whose love of her dog had consigned her to the sidewalk. “She’d been matched for housing in a low-income building,” Gilliam continues, “and even though she had a letter saying that she was disabled, and her dog was a support animal, she was not being allowed to move in with it. She couldn’t find a shelter that took animals either. I wrote a ‘reasonable accommodation’ letter and gave her five copies. Two weeks later, because of that legal letter, she was in the approved low-income housing.”

HEART and the Pet Resource Center legal clinic are separate entities that grew from a shared root: the vision of Lori Weise. Weise founded DDR in the late 1990s and has spent decades helping pet owners on Skid Row and in South L.A. Her work has been shaped by the understanding that a great deal of animal suffering is directly connected to the economic suffering of humans. Like most rescues, DDR saves and rehomes shelter dogs, but “for me,” says Weise, “it’s always been about the people.”

Since 2013, the organization’s “intervention program” at the South L.A. Animal Shelter has helped keep more than 7,000 animals out of the always-crowded facility by giving financial and other tangible assistance to struggling pet owners who are considering a pet surrender. The program, offering everything from money for reclamation fees to vouchers for vet care and even construction of dog-proof fences in open yards, has been widely imitated; programs based on Weise’s model exist at several Los Angeles-area shelters, as well as in other cities and states.

Over time, intervention program counselors have repeatedly seen families forced to choose between their housing and their animals’. The problem is widespread. A survey by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy found the top two reasons for surrender of both dogs and cats were “moving” and “landlord not allowing pets.” In a 2015 motion, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz noted that “since 2011, at least 22.6 percent of relinquished dogs and 18.6 percent of relinquished cats” had been turned over to city shelters because of tenancy restrictions.

The question was what to do. But also in 2015, both Weise and Prado, then a supervising staff attorney at Inner City Law, were speakers at a downtown forum on poverty and pets. Prado’s passionate commentary about how low-income tenants threatened with eviction inevitably lost because they had no legal representation was “a lightbulb moment for me,” Weise says. “I was listening to someone outside animal rescue who understood the problem.”

Prado, who’s got a 9-ish-year-old pitbull named Falcor that she rescued from the side of a freeway, felt the same. “Lori brings services together that no one else in the animal advocacy world would have thought were joined,” she says. The Pet Resource Center began the following year as a collaboration between Weise, the L.A. Animal Services Department and Inner City Law. In 2018, Prado left to start her own practice; her current clients come through shelter intervention counselors, rescue groups and community pet care clinics.

One strength of this strategy, its ability to organize without anyone noticing, comes from meeting clients “where they are,” as Weise would put it, and in settings that have nothing to do with their legal issues.

“When someone is facing or experiencing homelessness, people try to home in on one issue,” says Tai Glenn, chief counsel and director of legal services at Inner City. “But part of what we’re seeing is that there has to be a more holistic approach. This is a place where that can happen.”

Prado notes that many of her clients are not only dealing with eviction threats but problems like cockroach and rat infestations. “Without the pets, there are many people I’ve helped who’d never even have spoken to me,” she says. “No one wants to talk to a lawyer!”

Another strength is the strategy’s logic. Humans evicted because of animals face predictable financial and emotional consequences, including job loss, depression, poverty. Eleven percent of Los Angeles County’s unsheltered homeless directly cite eviction or foreclosure as responsible for putting them on the street. Animals made homeless when their people lose housing face life in a shelter cage. Keeping dogs out of shelters and keeping people off the street are part of the same fight.

“Look,” says Larry Gross, longtime executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival and current president of Los Angeles’ Board of Animal Services Commission, “for L.A. to be a real no-kill city…you have to get the animals into homes, and when 64 percent of the population are renters, that means they have to be accepted in apartments. In addressing homelessness, there needs to be an emphasis on keeping people in the housing they have, because we’re never going to reduce the numbers unless we turn off the faucet.”

In August, the city of Los Angeles City Council Housing Committee recommended that the city explore a housing “right to counsel” ordinance that would guarantee legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction. For tenants, that would be a game changer. Meanwhile, in less than two years, the various members of the Pet Resource Center legal team have successfully fought 79 pre-eviction notices, defended clients in eviction court a dozen times and kept 113 animals at home and out of shelters.

Between June 2018, when Prado opened HEART, and October, she says, she helped some 100 families, including defending 10 evictions in court; the rest of her cases didn’t even get that far. “Especially when a client is low-wage or Spanish-speaking, a landlord’s three-day notice is just a push to see if someone will push back,” she says. “The most important thing I do is preventing a threatened eviction from ever getting to court.”

Behind the numbers are faces human, canine: The man who’d gotten a 24-hour notice to get rid of his beloved small dog, Champagne. The single mother with a dog and three kids, one disabled. The family of five and dog terrified of losing a rent-controlled Wilmington apartment — who later returned to offer Prado flowers and a thank-you note. And the Baldwin Hills-area mother and daughter and their dog, Cookie; Prado’s emailed response to their landlord’s attorney went unanswered, her client’s next rent check was cashed, and the problem just went away.

Copyright Capital & Main

Continue Reading

Moving the Needle

Science Supports Supervised Injection Sites. Why Don’t Politicians Agree?

Safe injection facilities represent the highest ideal of harm reduction services for people who inject drugs, yet in the United States remain almost prohibitively controversial.

Judith Lewis Mernit




Supervised injection stations at Vancouver's Insite. (Photo: Insite)

 Any state that opens a supervised consumption site risks running afoul of federal law. Yet several U.S. cities and nonprofits plan to go ahead with the facilities anyway.

Harm reduction for drug users, which includes everything from distributing clean needles to HIV testing to supervised injection sites, has shown to be one of the most effective strategies for slowing the spread of disease and lowering overdose rates. In some parts of California, however, the approach remains misunderstood and controversial. This week our three-part series, “Moving the Needle,” looks at the obstacles faced by harm reduction organizations in rural Northern California. 

Monday Judith Lewis Mernit reported from Ukiah, where people who use drugs find acceptance and community without stigma or shame. Tuesday Mernit described how a model harm reduction center divides the city of Eureka — but also saves lives.

Today: Safe injection facilities are at the front line of a health-care revolution for drug users — and of a potential showdown with the Trump administration.


Somewhere in the U.S., at a location disclosed only to a select few, there exists a clean, bright room where people sit in comfortable chairs and inject illegal drugs with sterile equipment, under the watchful eyes of caring staff. They bring their own drugs, obtained on the street or through a dealer, and can test them, if they choose to, for the presence of fentanyl, a dangerously powerful synthetic opioid often mixed into heroin supplies (and possibly methamphetamine as well). They can relax, take the time to clean the injection site thoroughly with an alcohol wipe, find a useful vein without having to hurry.

When they are done injecting, they safely dispose of their syringes in a biohazard box and move into an adjoining room, where they continue to be monitored for signs of overdose. If a person nods off, appears to have trouble breathing, or turns pale and clammy, a trained technician can administer naloxone, an opioid overdose-reversal drug, and save that person’s life. In this one facility’s four-year history, 18 overdoses have been reversed, according to Alex Kral, an infectious disease epidemiologist in San Francisco with the nonprofit research agency RTI International.

In a dozen countries — including France, the Netherlands and Australia — only one fatal overdose has ever been associated with supervised consumption.

Supervised consumption sites, also called safe injection facilities or SIFs, represent the highest ideal of harm reduction services for people who inject drugs. While syringe-exchange programs help reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, and naloxone distribution among first responders, community members and the drug users themselves helps reduce overdose deaths, supervised consumption sites virtually eliminate fatalities.

Among the 120-some SIFs that have operated legally, some for more than 20 years, in a dozen countries — including France, the Netherlands and Australia — only one fatal overdose has ever been associated with supervised consumption. (That one death, which happened later at a hospital near a SIF in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, may have been caused by a heroin supply adulterated with a fentanyl analog such as carfentanil, a drug used to sedate elephants.)

The sites have also been found to have a positive, or at least neutral, impact on drug-related crime and violence in the neighborhoods where they exist. Supervised consumption in a contained facility could also address the biggest problem communities say they have with syringe-exchange programs, which is that, whether or not the exchange is to blame, needle litter turns up in playgrounds and parks. “I talked to a police captain here in San Francisco,” Kral reports, “and he said, ‘You mean the drug users go in a building, inject their drugs, and the needles stay there when they leave? I’m in!’”

Syringe discarded by heroin user. (Getty Images)

Supervised consumption sites, like syringe-exchange programs, also serve as a point of connection with health care for people with substance use disorders who want to stop, or at least change the way they use drugs — which includes nearly everyone who uses drugs. “Most people are thinking every day, ‘I’ve got to stop using drugs. I’m going to die like this,’” says Barry Zevin, medical director of Street Medicine and Shelter Health in the city of San Francisco. “But it’s really hard to walk into a treatment program and ask for help when you’re actively using.” Much better to go to where people are using, in the places where they feel comfortable, maybe even safe.

Nevertheless, supervised consumption sites in the United States remain almost prohibitively controversial. Last year, a California bill that would have authorized pilot programs in eight counties with high overdose rates — Humboldt and Mendocino among them — failed in the state legislature. This session, the bill’s authors, Assemblymember Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) and state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), pared down their ask to a single four-year experiment in San Francisco, and rebranded it as an “overdose prevention” bill. It passed both houses, only to die by Governor Jerry Brown’s pen.

Within two years of its 2003 opening, North America’s first supervised consumption site, in Vancouver, Canada, was associated with a 30 percent increase in detox enrollment.

Brown’s press secretary, Evan Westrup, claims the Governor acknowledged the research on supervised consumption when he wrote, in his September 30 veto letter, that “The supporters of the bill believe these ‘injection centers’ will have positive impacts, including the reduction of deaths, disease and infections resulting from drug use.” But “the governor also considered the views of those opposed to the legislation,” including law enforcement and drug court judges. “After weighing both sides,” Westrup wrote in an email, “[the governor] ultimately concluded that” — as he wrote in the letter — “the disadvantages of this bill far outweigh the possible benefits.”

“I do not believe,” reads the veto letter, “that enabling illegal drug use in government sponsored injection centers — without any corresponding requirement that the user undergo treatment — will reduce drug addiction.”

“Nobody wakes up one morning and says, ‘Hey, there’s this supervised consumption site in my neighborhood! I’m going to go and inject drugs now.’”

But the supporters of the bill aren’t relying on anything so malleable as belief. Instead they cite decades of scientific research demonstrating that supervised consumption sharply reduces the incidence of death, disease and infection among injection drug users. There is also ample evidence that coercive treatment fails, 12-step programs work only five to 10 percent of the time, and supervised consumption often serves as a pathway to voluntary treatment. Within two years of its opening in 2003, North America’s first supervised consumption site, Insite in Vancouver, Canada, was associated with a 30 percent increase in detox enrollment. Later studies have confirmed that the trend continues.

Nor is there evidence to support the claim that supervised consumption “enables” drug use. “There’s nobody who wakes up one morning and says, ‘Hey, there’s this supervised consumption site in my neighborhood! I’m going to go and inject drugs now,’” says Kral, who with Peter Davidson of the University of California, San Diego, is one of two researchers allowed in to study the clandestine supervised consumption site.

In fact, he says, the people who access the facilities “are people who’ve been injecting for a long time and have to come to some sort of terms with the fact that it’s gotten so bad that they’re willing to go to one of these places. It’s not like stepping into a bar. These aren’t fun late-night hangouts. They’re not enabling people to do anything.” Except stay alive.

“That’s what it all comes down to,” Kral says. “The first thing you’ve got to do is keep them from dying. Then let’s think about treatment and all of the other options.”

Kral remembers a time when the “enabling” argument was used against another harm reduction effort, the distribution of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone. “The words people used back then were, ‘This is a parachute drug. You’re giving people a parachute, so now they’re going to think it’s fine to jump off planes.’” That criticism has fallen away as the crisis has grown more severe, but it still persists in some circles, as does the idea that people who use drugs have no agency to make decisions for themselves.

If it hadn’t been for opioids, the country would still be in a crisis of substance use disorders. Only the substances would be different.

Elinore McCance-Katz, the assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), recently wrote that she opposes fentanyl test strips on the grounds that “people who are severely addicted will actually use the test strips to seek fentanyl, which might be able to give them the high that their current opioid no longer gives them.”

It’s that kind of “paternalistic attitude,” Kral says, that often stands in the way of services that can protect the health of people while they’re using drugs. But it also reflects a misunderstanding of how and why people get high. Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, argues that the nationwide opioid crisis wasn’t born simply of a loose prescribing environment for new and misleadingly marketed painkillers. It happened because those drugs became available during a time when people were feeling the sting of shrinking incomes, home foreclosures and disappearing opportunities.

“Opioids were the spark,” he says, “but broader societal changes created the fuel. The decline of unionization, poor job conditions, the dismantling of public assistance — all of it gets swept under the rug with this simplistic view of opioids being the causal factor.” If it hadn’t been for opioids, the country would still be in a crisis of substance use disorders. Only the substances would be different.

There already exist injection sites in every city, town and county: They’re called public bathrooms.

It’s worth remembering that, decades before opioids were a national obsession, overdose rates were already at crisis levels in urban communities of color, as well as in certain desperately poor counties in Appalachia and New Mexico. “Opioids were able to penetrate communities that would have been more likely to use alcohol, or other substances, like Valium,” Beletsky says. And “the use of benzodiazepines and amphetamines is [also] through the roof” right now.

As is the use of heroin and fentanyl. One of the consequences of restricting the prescription drug supply has been a sharp uptick in the use of far more dangerous street drugs. In 2015, law enforcement personnel who submitted illicit drugs for testing found twice as many tainted with fentanyl as they’d found the year before.

The discussion we should be having then, Beletsky continues, “isn’t an opioids-only discussion,” based on the idea that opioids are a contagion that needs to be contained. “It’s a discussion about our physical and mental health as a nation.”

Governor Brown was right about one thing in his letter: Any state that opens a supervised consumption site risks running afoul of federal law. The “crack house law,” enacted in 1986, prohibits maintaining “any place, whether permanently or temporarily,” for the purpose of using any controlled substance. In an August 27 New York Times opinion piece, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein promised “swift and aggressive action” against local jurisdictions that sanction supervised consumption facilities. He also claimed — again, without evidence — that SIFs “normalize drug use and facilitate addiction.”

Several U.S. cities and nonprofits plan to go ahead with the facilities anyway. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has been adamant that she won’t bow to state and federal authorities on the matter; Seattle’s Human Services Department is discussing a mobile supervised consumption site. Ithaca, New York has a site “fully outfitted and ready to go,” Kral says. New York City advocates have floated the idea of applying for a research license from both state and federal governments, in order to get around the legal constraints of opening a SIF.

In Philadelphia, the harm-reduction nonprofit Safehouse has already begun raising funds for what it calls an “overdose prevention site” (and which the regional U.S. Attorney calls a “deadly drug injection site”), with the support of former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. “It’s somewhat possible,” Rendell acknowledged to the Associated Press, that “they will come and arrest me.”

Or maybe they won’t. Beletsky has written that the law “was never intended to interfere with a legally authorized public health intervention,” which supervised consumption sites clearly are. After all, there already exist injection sites in every city, town and county: They’re called public bathrooms. And alleys, park gazebos and just about any place else one can find a place to hide. “We need to play that game where we require politicians to finish every sentence denouncing supervised injection facilities with the phrase, ‘and that is why I think injecting alone in a McDonald’s bathroom is better,’” wrote physician and harm reduction advocate Jonathan Giftos on Twitter.

“If you think this through at all, [the objections] are not about reality,” Alex Kral says. The science, he notes, is clear on the benefits for both the community of people who use drugs and the community of people who want drug use to stop. Everything else “is just politics.”

Judith Lewis Mernit’s reporting on harm reduction in rural California was supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2018 Impact Fund.

Copyright Capital & Main

Continue Reading

Moving the Needle

Drug Users Fight for Acceptance in California’s Deep North

The Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction is more than a syringe exchange. It’s a place where people who use drugs also find community, treatment for their psychic and physical wounds, and advice to help them stay alive and disease-free while they continue to use drugs.

Judith Lewis Mernit




Peer volunteer Jamie and program coordinator Jessica Smith at the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction. (Photos by Judith Lewis Mernit)

The battle over a harm reduction center in Eureka, California reflects battles being fought across America about how to treat, rehabilitate and care for people who use drugs.

Harm reduction for drug users, which includes everything from distributing clean needles to HIV testing to supervised injection sites, has shown to be one of the most effective strategies for slowing the spread of disease and lowering overdose rates. In some parts of California, however, the approach remains misunderstood and controversial. This week our three-part series, “Moving the Needle,” looks at the obstacles faced by harm reduction organizations in rural Northern California. 

Yesterday Judith Lewis Mernit reported from Ukiah, where people who use drugs find acceptance and community without stigma or shame. Today Mernit describes how a model harm reduction center divides the city of Eureka — but also saves lives.

Wednesday: Safe injection facilities are at the front line of a health-care revolution for drug users — and of a potential showdown with the Trump administration.

Wednesday morning, 10 a.m., Eureka California.

Mikey, a man in his 30s with smooth tanned skin, light-blue eyes and brown curls tumbling out of his baseball cap, stands in a cramped and busy kitchen, 20 slices of bread laid out before him. “I’m making bologna sandwiches,” he tells me when I ask. “As many as I can get out of two loaves of bread.”

As the kitchen manager at the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction, or HACHR, Mikey prepares meals every day for people who come by here for supplies — alcohol wipes with which to prepare an injection site, sterile water in which to dissolve powder, clean needles to prevent blood-borne disease. He asks that I not use his last name, or his face in a picture; he’s too worried about reprisals from people who don’t approve of what he does. When I ask him whether he’ll let me quote him in this story, he consents only because he’ll do whatever it takes to defend the place where he’s found friends, work and acceptance. Like most of the people who visit this house, Mikey is dependent on drugs.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m a drug fiend,” he admits. During the day he uses heroin to control his panic disorder. “The doctors won’t give me ‘benzos,’” a class of sedatives that includes Xanax, Klonopin and Valium. “They say they don’t trust me with them.” At night, he sometimes injects methamphetamine to stay awake on Eureka’s streets, so he doesn’t get robbed or beat up.

Mikey works swiftly, constructing his sandwiches and piling them into a cooler for an outreach trip to the nearby city of Arcata. Within the hour, he’s ready to go.

“This is the best job I’ve had in the world,” he says. “I don’t want it to go away.”

“I grocery shop like I’m Jackie Onassis. If anyone sees me wearing sunglasses indoors they’ll say, ‘See? We told you she uses drugs.’”

When I visited HACHR in June of this year, the fear that it might go away was perilously real. Three months earlier, Eureka’s city council had passed an ordinance requiring agencies that distribute clean needles file quarterly reports and steer people into treatment — a practice HACHR volunteers consciously avoid. (“If you push people too hard, they don’t come back,” HACHR board member Rachel Waldman told the council.) Discussions had unfurled on Facebook and NextDoor, in which people threatened to come for HACHR staff with “torches and pitchforks.”

HACHR’s founder and executive director, Brandie Wilson.

Worried that the council would rescind the ordinance that allows HACHR to operate in the city, Brandie Wilson, HACHR’s founder and executive director, had applied for authorization from the state of California, which would override local control. In public comments regarding the application submitted to the California Department of Public Health, one Eureka resident accused HACHR of actions “bordering on terrorist activity” and “helping children to shoot up.” Another called the agency “a radical militia group.”

The animosity peaked on June 5, when protesters associated with the anti-HACHR group Take Back Eureka faced off against HACHR supporters on the steps of Eureka’s City Hall. Two weeks later, two city councilmembers, Heidi Messner and Kim Bergel, showed up at a HACHR board meeting, announcing that they felt compelled to address the community’s concerns. From both sides’ accounts, the meeting turned hostile, and in the aftermath, Wilson reported that someone had keyed her car, that stalkers were videotaping HACHR’s activities through the windows and that more than one threat had been made on her life.

“Everyone’s out there believing that only bad people do drugs. When in reality, everyone uses drugs. Everyone.”

“I grocery shop like I’m Jackie Onassis,” she told me. “I cover my head and wear big sunglasses.” She realized the disguise could backfire: “If anyone recognizes me and sees me wearing sunglasses indoors they’ll say, ‘See? We told you she uses drugs.’”

Wilson and her staff reported the alleged keying incident and threats to the police, but Eureka’s Chief of Police, Steve Watson, dismissed them as below the threshold of legal action. Comments posted on social media, he said, “fall under the protection of the First Amendment.” He did not condone the threats, but neither was he unsympathetic. “As a law enforcement leader I’m unwilling to sacrifice the community’s sense of safety on the altar of a syringe exchange program,” he told me. “Parents should be able to take their children to our parks without living in fear of being stuck by a discarded needle.”

As to whether HACHR would be held responsible for such an incident — and for the needles that people say clog public toilets and accumulate in Eureka’s gutters — Watson demurs. Those needles could come from a lot of places, including Humboldt County’s own syringe exchange program or any of the local pharmacies, which in accordance with a 2015 state law, are allowed to sell syringes on demand. “The issue is more whether having this kind of syringe exchange program is right for a community like Eureka,” he says. Enlisting people like Mikey as volunteers, he says, makes it seem like drug use is okay. “But it’s not,” he insists. “Illegal drug use is never okay.”

The battle over HACHR is roughly the same as the battles being fought all over the country about how to treat, rehabilitate and care for people who use drugs. The nationwide crisis believed to have begun with loosely regulated access to prescription opioids has now become a nationwide crisis of injection drug use — along with blood-borne diseases and deadly infections from paraphernalia shared and misused. In Charleston, West Virginia, a program that provided clean syringes in addition to counseling and medical services was shut down after the police chief imposed onerous restrictions, such as ID checks and a strict one-to-one exchange. (A wide body of decades-old research shows that a more permissive “needs-based” exchange saves more lives.) In Grand Traverse County, Michigan, where injection drug use fueled an epidemic of hepatitis C — a chronic form of the disease that spreads almost exclusively among people who share needles — county health officials sustain a clean needle program over the ongoing protests of the county sheriff.

People who use drugs also die from infections caused by unsterilized needles and dirty water, wounds that turn septic and can’t be reversed.

The Orange County Needle Exchange Program in Santa Ana, California, lasted only from February, 2016 until December, 2017 before city officials pulled its permit on the grounds that not only was syringe distribution increasing the number of dirty needles found on the streets, but also facilitating drug use among Orange County’s swelling ranks of the unsheltered. (Neither claim has empirical evidence to support it.)

Like the Charleston program in its heyday, HACHR is more than a syringe exchange. It’s a place where people who use drugs also find community, treatment for their psychic and physical wounds, and advice to help them stay alive and disease-free while they continue to use drugs. Since 2017, when Wilson settled her crew into a 19-room Victorian house in downtown Eureka, it has functioned as an all-purpose gathering place for a few days a week, welcoming people who use drugs, be they opiates or stimulants or both. “We even have a nap room for people who are in chaos from lack of sleep,” Wilson says.

Wilson also relies on people who use HACHR’s services – “consumers,” she calls them — to staff the facility. “Drug users are front and center here,” Wilson tells me. “They make decisions, they help people connect with services. They’re the reason we can even function.” The people who mend the roof, who facilitate the art days, who offer workshops in medicinal teas — almost all of them use drugs once in a while, weekly or every day. Wilson demands only that they not use drugs on the premises and treat each other with respect.

This, more than anything, is what confuses HACHR’s detractors. “HACHR is the only [county needle exchange program] that has [current drug] users as a part of their team, in charge of needle exchange,” says Heidi Messner, who represents Eureka’s Ward 2 on the city council. “The term ‘best practices’ is being thrown around [by HACHR staff] but it’s a lie,” she says. “‘Best practices’ is when [people] who were users and are now clean work with users. To take that term and use it in a completely different context frustrates people.”

Messner also objects that Wilson isn’t pushing her consumers into treatment. “If [treatment] was part of the model, it [would probably] look different to people,” Messner says. “If the model is just, ‘Let’s corral people and keep them safe while moving toward their own destruction,’ that’s a challenge for people. Do we make sure they don’t trip over anything, make sure they don’t fall and get hurt on their way to jumping off a cliff?”

Wilson has little patience for that kind of talk. “That’s why we’re dying,” she says. “Everyone’s out there believing that only bad people do drugs, that if you use drugs you’re not a part of society or you’re not a part of the community. When in reality, everyone uses drugs. Everyone.”

Humboldt County, where 135,000 people are spread out across 4,000 square miles, has in recent years become notorious for its large number of homeless people, and people who inject drugs. It is also known for its drug-related deaths, and not just from opioids: Of the 49 people in the county who died from a drug overdose in 2017, according to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department, close to a third of them overdosed on stimulants, primarily methamphetamine. Some of those drug supplies may have been tainted with other substances, such as fentanyl, a cheap but potent opioid first developed for use in patients undergoing cardiac surgery. The quality of street drugs is difficult to control.

People who use drugs also die from infections caused by unsterilized needles and dirty water, wounds that turn septic and can’t be reversed. They contract diseases from sharing pipes with raw and chapped lips. They often don’t know they’re infected, and consequently don’t seek care. The Humboldt County Department of Public Health estimates that nearly one in every 18 residents in the county are currently living with hepatitis C. The rate of new infections in the county is currently three times the state average.

Wilson is 44, although she looks younger, in part because of the way she wears her dark blond hair: in a wavy bob with a shock of magenta painted into it. She argues with a passion that endears her to many but which others find off-putting — especially those who have a less generous opinion of people who use drugs. She founded HACHR in 2014, in response to what she saw as a crushing need for health services in Eureka’s homeless encampments in Cooper Gulch Park and the Palco Marsh, which upwards of 200 people once occupied in tents or ramshackle shelters adjacent to Humboldt Bay. In 2015, her organization subsisted on a single $20,000 grant, from the Humboldt Patient Resource Center.

“We didn’t have a vehicle,” she says. “We’d go down there with a wagon — one of those fold-up ones you get at Costco — and give out wound-care kits, hygiene kits and referrals.” In 2016, the same year the Eureka Police Department began evicting the marsh residents to transform the area into a city park, the city passed a resolution authorizing HACHR’s syringe-exchange program. By then, HACHR had incorporated, secured nonprofit tax status and assembled a board of directors. Cobbling together grants and individual donations, Wilson raised enough to fund an operating budget of $100,000 without any taxpayer funds from the city.

The next year, Open Door Community Health Centers, a nonprofit that operates several rural Northern California clinics, offered as a headquarters the big Victorian house on Third Street, which had variously been a trap house, a vacant eyesore and a treatment clinic, for rent at $1 a month. Wilson insists on keeping every surface clean as a surgical table, often furiously wielding a bottle of bleach solution to wipe down counters herself. (When I complain the spray is making me cough, she tells me to open a window). Bright educational posters and memorials to fallen friends cover the walls.

The California Department of Public Health donates supplies, including syringes and naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids and can halt an overdose in progress. Other supplies, such as tourniquets and condoms, HACHR buys, and volunteers neatly sort into compartmentalized boxes.

Last year, HACHR volunteers and staff counted 2,674 encounters with drug users, slightly more than three times as many as they saw the year before, when they were still an itinerant service. Because there are no ID requirements or other tracking information that might deter a potential consumer, that number includes people who accessed services more than once. The syringe-exchange program began as a “needs-based” effort — if you came in the door, you could get as many clean needles as you asked for. Because there are many places in the hills above Eureka where there is almost no access to doctors, let alone clean needles, there were times when a single person would walk away with 300 needles. “This is a vast rural community that we serve,” says Jessica Smith, HACHR’s program coordinator. “Sometimes we hadn’t seen someone for months. Sometimes someone would be collecting for their entire community.”

After the city council passed the March ordinance, HACHR switched to a one-to-one trade, to the extent that it’s feasible: The federal Occupational Health and Safety Act prohibits the opening of sealed sharps containers to count their contents, so HACHR staff has to count based on estimates of how many sharps fit in a given container. (Eco-Med, the company that processes discarded needles, later verifies the count by weight.) In 2017, 688,390 of the 735,823 needles HACHR distributed came back — a 93.5 percent return rate.

HACHR is something of a pay-it-forward enterprise for Wilson, who grew up in Terra Bella, a small rural California town in the Sierra Foothills, and early on developed her own problems with drug and alcohol abuse, cycling in and out of drug courts and 12-step programs punctuated by stints in jail. “The [drug court] system was set up to fail,” she says. “Any small thing would put you back in jail.”

After California voters passed Proposition 36 in 2000, redirecting drug offenders into treatment, Wilson struggled with rehabilitation programs that failed to address the mindset of the smart young rebel atheist she was. “Everything was about God,” she says. “And I didn’t believe in God.” Then she met a woman she calls Nickie C., at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. (The abbreviated last name is in accordance with N.A. traditions.) “Her husband, Bob, had been in prison for 16 years on a drug charge,” she says. “He got out of prison, and got a Ph.D.” The couple helped her understand that recovery wasn’t about steps, but about guiding principles for how to live. “They taught me that there’s a lot of space in between chaotic drug use and abstinence,” she says.

Most of all, they encouraged her to go to back to school. She began in a certificate program for drug and alcohol counseling at Porterville College, but in her first job at a drug court-authorized counseling facility, one of her clients, a mother of three, was sent back to jail after a urine test came back positive for cannabis. “Being a drug court counselor sucks if you don’t believe in the drug war, if you don’t believe in incarceration,” Wilson says. So with Nickie and Bob “cheerleading” for her, she enrolled in Humboldt State University — first as a psychology major, but quickly switched to sociology. She graduated with a master’s in 2011. “Sociology is all about the ‘isms’ that drive the fight in me,” she says. “It helped me understand that it wasn’t just me being bad. It was a system that was corrupt and fucked. I was responding appropriately.”

There is such a thing as a functioning drug user,” says Christina Donnell, a jocular redhead who facilitates art days at the center on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Donnell was once an injection drug user herself, but hasn’t used in months. “I just segued out,” she says. As she started taking on more responsibility at HACHR, working as a volunteer, she started to crave more mental clarity, and her drug use tapered off. “I don’t like to use the word ‘clean,’” she says, “because that implies I’ll never get high again, and that’s not true. I might use drugs again from time to time. They just don’t control my life.”

Donnell’s story is not uncommon. Jessica Smith watched her own mother segue out, after 16 years of using heroin. “She fell in love and got married to another drug user who was on the outs with his family,” Smith says. When the two of them took a trip back east to mend the husband’s relationships, they both stopped using drugs and never went back.

No treatment plan, 12-step program or incarceration could have accomplished that, Smith says. “You’re not ready until you’re ready.”

Some people might never be ready, in which case intervention takes the form of support for integrating into society, of becoming that functioning drug user Donnell refers to. Community helps; so, in some cases, does a dog. Smith has been trying to help Mikey get Rebel classified as a service dog so he can take him on the bus with him; Rebel “alerts” on Mikey when he has a seizure. “You have a right under the ADA to keep him with you,” she instructs. “You just have to tell people what he does.”

Mikey went to city hall to get Rebel a license, but he wasn’t yet neutered, so they turned him down. He comes back visibly defeated. “I was so excited to make him official,” he says. “That was such a letdown.”

But he’s still proud that he comported himself with dignity in the face of resistance. “There was another time in his life when I would have started yelling at people,” he says. “But now I’m representing this place. I don’t want to give it a bad name. So I was calm.”

“Mikey wants to go to culinary school,” Smith says. “We’re trying to help him with that.”

Early one Thursday afternoon, seven people crowded into HACHR’s small, barely furnished kitchen. The room still smelled of fried onions and tomato sauce from the spaghetti lunch Mikey made earlier in the day. Jessica Smith had laid out a blanket of paper large enough to nearly cover the table. On it were the names and office phone numbers of city council members and other elected officials who were publicly contemplating whether to rescind the 2016 ordinance authorizing HACHR’s existence.

“If you call Natalie, remember to just thank her,” Wilson shouted out to the room, referring to City Councilmember Natalie Arroyo, who stood up for HACHR when no one else did. (She was rewarded, Wilson and Watson both claim, with a syringe dropped on her front porch.)

Across the table from Smith sat Jessica Fox, a county mental health case worker who spends two hours a week at HACHR. “I help people connect to services,” she explained. “If they want to get into detox, I can help with that. If they just want to see a therapist I can help with them that. Just trying to connect people, helping people navigate the right path — instead of just making people go around in circles until they get arrested or die.”

“That is our city’s plan,” interjected Wilson. “The genocidal plan.”

The group was obviously on edge. When a tiny chime rang indicating an open door or window somewhere, Kenneth Boyd, the peer leader of HACHR’s cleanup crew, ran up the stairs in a panic. “It was just the wind,” he said when he returned. “Somebody didn’t close the door too tight.”

Boyd settled back in his position at the head of the table, where he’d been holding forth about how he got his nickname, Sidetrack. (In 1984 he went on a grocery run for his friends, he says, and didn’t come back for five days.) “Everyone here is pretty nervous,” he told me. “That’s what happens when you’re getting kicked all the time.”

On July 17, Jessica Smith and Rachel Waldman, HACHR’s board treasurer, stood at a podium before four of Eureka’s five city council members to present the organization’s first two-year report, an exercise required of syringe-exchange programs by state law. Projected on a screen above them was a slogan familiar to advocates for people with disabilities: “Nothing about us without us.”

“Everything in our program is informed by the people that we serve,” Smith explained. “We have a very in-depth peer program.”

Messner had trouble with this concept. “When you’re using that term ‘peer,’ are you referring to current addicts? [Because] the definition I’m familiar with is someone who’s successfully overcome some of the unhealthy habits that are involved in drug use.”

“Maybe what they’ve overcome are unsafe injection practices,” Smith said. Maybe they used to get a lot of abscesses and now they know how not to do that.”

Messner seemed unconvinced, so Smith kept on. “We’ve had peer leaders move on to have jobs and cars and insurance and all kinds of things they didn’t have before.” To “come into a role and have purpose and meaning,” she explained, can save your life.

Other councilmembers asked questions, too. “Does HACHR provide drugs to people?” asked Councilmember Kim Bergel.

“Absolutely not!” Smith answered. Councilmember Austin Allison, clearly sympathetic, asked the women to explain why harm reduction costs society less than treating people in the hospital for disease. “Preventing one case of HIV could save $450,000” in public health costs, Waldman said.

In the end, instead of revoking the organization’s authorization to operate, the council voted to establish an advisory board to address problems related to syringe distribution, including the city’s litter problem. One of the most persuasive arguments came from Kim Bergel, who in June had been inclined to shut HACHR down. “Any new business is going to have growing pains,” she said. HACHR staff has learned a lot in its first two years; rescinding the ordinance would put the city back at square one.

“We won the battle,” Wilson tells me when I see her next, in August. She confirms that, after a long heart-to-heart, Bergel had come around, and was now lauding HACHR for winning an award from the California Hepatitis Alliance for its work in community organizing.

Neither Bergel nor Wilson will divulge exactly what happened in their talk. Bergel will only say that she was tired of the divisiveness in the community. “I decided to look at my part in that,” she says. “And that led me to ask different questions.” Now she’s lobbying for a consumer to sit on the advisory board. “I mean, that’s who we’re talking about, right?”

On October 8, the California Department of Public Health announced, after a long delay, that HACHR had met the requirements for state authorization to operate as a syringe exchange in Eureka and Arcata, plus at four more outreach locations around the county. And Wilson has big hopes for the future. She plans soon to start up a foot-care clinic — feet and toes are common sites of infection for unsheltered people who inject drugs. She also wants to find a way to offer in-house treatment for hepatitis C, which is now curable in most cases. She’s counting on the state’s imprimatur to help her in the next local battle, which will no doubt come: In November, the city will vote on a new slate of councilmembers. Bergel’s seat is at risk, and at least three candidates, Michelle Constantine, Jeannie Breslin, John Fullerton and Bergel’s challenger, Joe Bonino, have promised to come down hard on Eureka’s public drug use and stray needles. All three have been explicit about who they hold responsible.

“The thing that hurts me the most is the lack of empathy people have,” Wilson says. “That people aren’t worth their care unless they stop using drugs.” If some people in the community want HACHR shut down, she says, it’s not because of the needles. “It’s because we’re demanding space in the system. We’re demanding civil rights for drug users.”

It might be starting to work. “Maybe the anger and outrage,” she says, “means that we’re successful.”

Judith Lewis Mernit’s reporting on harm reduction in rural California was supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2018 Impact Fund.

Copyright Capital & Main

Continue Reading

Moving the Needle

Can Harm Reduction Roll Back an Epidemic of Drug-Related Deaths and Disease?

Co-published by Newsweek
The practice of harm reduction seeks not to shame people who use drugs into giving them up, but simply to provide them with the tools to improve their health.

Judith Lewis Mernit




Naloxone kit. (Photo: James Heilman, MD)

Co-published by Newsweek

Between 1999 and 2016, deaths from opioid analgesics in the U.S. quintupled. When the pills ran out, cheap heroin flooded in.

Harm reduction for drug users, which includes everything from distributing clean needles to HIV testing to supervised injection sites, has shown to be one of the most effective strategies for slowing the spread of disease and lowering overdose rates. In some parts of California, however, the approach remains misunderstood and controversial. This week our three-part series, “Moving the Needle,” looks at the obstacles faced by harm reduction organizations in rural Northern California. Today Judith Lewis Mernit begins by reporting from the Mendocino County AIDS/Viral Hepatitis Network in Ukiah, where people who use drugs find acceptance and community without stigma or shame. Mernit’s reporting has been supported by a grant from the the University of Southern California Health Journalism Impact Fund.

Tuesday: A model harm reduction center in Humboldt County divides the city of Eureka — but also saves lives.

Wednesday: Safe injection facilities are at the front line of a health-care revolution for drug users — and of a potential showdown with the Trump administration.


Carol Chrysler is doing her best to fulfill the requests of a man sitting across from her in the cramped room of a tiny house in Ukiah, California. Chrysler, 33, is a volunteer with the Mendocino County AIDS/Viral Hepatitis Network; the man, 31, has driven 45 miles south in search of clean needles of many different gauges and lengths. “I’m a 10-pack per use guy,” he tells her, anxiously bouncing one knee. “I need 31s, 29s, 28s, 27s, half-inch, quarter inch, three-eighths.”

“I don’t have any 28s,” she informs him.

“Do you have 29s? 27s?”

“I do,” she says.

“Because I do a lot of rotation. You wouldn’t necessarily know, but I’ve been 13 years at this.”

The man, whose name I promised not to ask when he allowed me to sit in on his visit, tells me that he injects methamphetamine to endure months alone in the outback cultivating cannabis, at a grow site near the town of Laytonville. “It’s what happens when you live alone for 10 months out of the year,” he says. “I can make it about seven.” He found out about MCVHN — which locals pronounce “Macavin” — five days ago, after his last reused needle proved too dull to safely pierce his skin. He’s finding the Ukiah services a considerable step down, he adds, from the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance in Seattle, where he last lived.

“There you would show up and it was like hitting the cafeteria line,” he says. “Crack pipes, crack [pipe] condoms, cookers, everything.”

Overdose deaths skyrocketed once people figured out that dissolving and injecting newly marketed opioids for chronic pain delivered a more satisfying high than the pills did.

Chrysler politely tells him that MCVHN doesn’t do cookers. “But you’re not the first person to ask me this week,” she says, “so I’ll bring it up.”

After some back and forth, Chrysler agrees to give the man two 10-packs of syringes, in two different sizes. He rejects a dose of naloxone, a drug that binds to the brain’s opioid receptors and can arrest an opioid overdose. (Meth is sometimes spiked with fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid.) He promises that when he returns to resupply, he’ll take a test for hepatitis C, a chronic form of the disease prevalent among people who share needles.

“Next time you come in ask for Wendy,” Chrysler says. “She’ll do a test for you.”

People might find it outrageous that someone can walk in off the street and access the paraphernalia they need to inject their drugs.

Chrysler does not ask the man if he’s interested in treatment. She does not lecture him about the toll methamphetamine might be taking on his mind and body. A former methamphetamine user herself — she’s been eight months clean — Chrysler knows that if she tries that, the man might never come back. And most of all, she wants him to come back.

“Thank you, hon, see you next time,” she says as the man takes the package of supplies and hurries out. “Stay safe!”

Chrysler is a “peer leader” in the field of harm reduction, a practice that seeks not to shame people who use drugs into giving them up, but simply to provide them with the tools and support to improve their health. She started using methamphetamine as a teenager, and still understands the value of a thin, short needle when you’re injecting a second dose with shaky hands, just as she understands why it’s important to get tested for blood-borne illnesses. She is firm; she sets boundaries. But she doesn’t judge. She has been there too recently herself.

To people outside the harm reduction field, the notion that someone can walk in off the street and access, for free and without identification, the paraphernalia they need to inject their drugs might seem outrageous, maybe even criminal. “People will say, ‘You mean you give someone a new needle, and they go an inject drugs with that needle?’” said Alessandra Ross, an injection drug use specialist with the California Department of Public Health, speaking to public health professionals at a September conference on rural opioid use. “That can be a challenge for people.”

Public attitudes about offering drug users assistance without asking for sobriety haven’t changed much — even if it prevents the spread of a blood-borne disease.

But the consequences of not rising to that challenge have too recently been driven home in rural communities all over the country. Once people figured out that dissolving, cooking and injecting extended-release formulations of newly marketed opioids for chronic pain — oxycodone and oxymorphone — delivered a cheaper and more satisfying high than the pills did, overdose deaths skyrocketed: Between 1999 and 2016, the incidence of death from opioid analgesics in the U.S. quintupled. When the pills ran out, cheap heroin flooded in. And where needles were scarce, disease raged unchecked: In rural Scott County, Indiana, more than 200 people became infected with the same strain of HIV between 2011 and 2015, when then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence lifted the state’s ban on syringe-exchange services in the most affected counties. Had the state acted five years earlier, a recent Yale University study found, HIV might never have spread beyond the first 10 people who contracted it.

MCVHN executive director Libby Guthrie.

Harm reduction for drug users is nothing new. Even in rural America, clean-needle distribution has been going on at least since the late 1980s, when the HIV epidemic showed that it respected no urban boundaries. Libby Guthrie, MCVHN’s executive director, started out in 1987 working on HIV prevention among injection drug users in the San Francisco Bay Area, but in 1990 moved to North Carolina, where HIV was rampant throughout the 1990s and all but ignored. “I watched several people die every month in [the HIV support group I led],” she recalls, “and watched other people not talk about why they died.”

Back then, syringe-exchanges operated underground, or, in California, with emergency waivers from county officials. That wasn’t possible everywhere: Dallas Blanchard, who runs a needle exchange on Saturday afternoons in Fresno, California, remembers trying to distribute clean needles in Kern County a decade ago. “If you got caught, you’d do 10 days in jail for every syringe,” he says. But the law has progressed: Since 2012, it’s been legal to possess and distribute syringes. As of 2015, you can even buy them in a pharmacy, although in a syringe purchase trial conducted among pharmacies in Fresno and Kern counties, led by West Virginia University Professor Robin Pollini, only 21 percent of attempts succeeded.

What hasn’t changed much are public attitudes about offering drug users assistance without asking for sobriety, even if it means preventing the spread of a blood-borne disease. A recent survey conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that only 39 percent of adults in the U.S. would accept a legal syringe exchange in their communities, and only 29 percent approved of safe consumption facilities, where people can inject drugs in a protected environment, in the presence of trained medical personnel.

Twenty-six counties and cities in California have some sort of syringe-exchange program, which leaves virtually the entire eastern side of the state without any such services at all. Although Blanchard says he delivers syringes over the Kern-Fresno County line once a week, and also to an outreach stop in Tulare County, neither Kern nor Tulare has a clean needle program for injection drug users, despite nontrivial rates of overdose and disease. One rural California county, Plumas, has successfully reduced its overdose-death rate — once highest in the state — with a harm reduction program that has the support of law enforcement and local officials. But in other rural counties that do have services — Fresno, Humboldt and Mendocino in particular — local opposition has remained so fierce that service providers have turned to the state for authorization, so local authorities can’t shut them down.

Money is also an issue. As the budget for health and social services in California has tightened over the past decade, harm reduction agencies have seen their resources dwindle from scarce to almost nothing. Guthrie remembers when, in the early 2000s, with funding from the state Office of AIDS, she could afford four paid, full-time outreach workers who made regular treks to the tiny northern hamlets of Laytonville and Leggett, and even Covelo, where a confederation of six Native American tribes inhabit the remote Round Valley, a one-and-a-half hour drive from Ukiah. This was important: One of the premises of harm reduction is that offering clean needles is a first point of contact with drug users who might need other health services, counseling or disease testing.

“Every day of the week,” she says, “[the outreach workers] were out doing their thing, getting fresh supplies, testing people and making referrals — ‘Do you need testing? Do you need medical care? Housing?’ They were coming face to face with people and giving them syringes once a week and coming and picking them up.”

“Their perception of an addict is that I’m a bad person. But I’m not. I have integrity. I care about other people more than I care about myself.”

Then came the Great Recession and California’s budget crisis. Facing a $40 billion budget shortfall, California in 2010 eliminated all $33 million from the Office of AIDS’s prevention budget, which had supplemented $9 million from the Centers for Disease Control. The agency was forced to spread its federal funds among 19 “high-burden” jurisdictions, most of them coastal and urban. Mendocino, Humboldt, Lake and 39 other mostly rural counties were completely left out.

“We went from riches to rags overnight,” Guthrie says. “It was like, ‘Boom! You’re done.’ I said, no, we’re not. We have people in need and we have this syringe exchange, and it’s one of the only ways to engage people who are using drugs in the county.” She has kept MCVHN running with a network of volunteers to disseminate what they can. But she admits it’s not ideal. Mendocino County covers 3,800 square miles, much of it rugged and difficult to access. “We can no longer go out and do trainings for HIV and hep C testing, we can no longer do referrals and linkages. We’ve lost that face-to-face contact with people.” Because volunteer delegates — usually people who currently use drugs themselves — collect for their friends and communities in the far reaches of the county, she says, “65 percent of our exchangers we never get to see.”

In some ways, the attention being paid to opioid dependency in the U.S. has been a boon for places like MCVHN, which had been addressing the needs of injection drug users long before substance use disorders became a national focus. When California, in June of 2018, issued a statewide standing order for naloxone, allowing community organizations to obtain and distribute the overdose-reversal drug without a physician’s guidance, the county health department turned to Guthrie for help. “We were the only agency in the county that had any experience with it,” she says.The response to the opioid crisis “means I don’t have to invite myself to the Opioid Safety Committee meetings anymore,” Guthrie says. “We’re no longer those people down the street enabling drug addicts.” With the help of a new county public health director, Barbara Howe, Guthrie is in the process of securing funding for two outreach workers for the first time in 13 years. A new police chief, Justin Wyatt, has even stepped up to serve on the county’s Homeless Action Services Group, which among other things addresses drug misuse issues among people who live without shelter.

“I’ve been six days clean and I’ve already made up my mind I’m going to go out and get loaded today. I’m dopesick.”

But “we’re still the red-headed stepchild,” says Guthrie. “Not everyone embraces what we do.” Not everyone understands, in other words, that an overdose prevention kit and revised prescribing protocols aren’t the answer to everyone’s struggle with substance use.

At MCVHN, I meet Sean Jardstrom, who’s been using methamphetamine for 34 years — since he was 14 — and injecting for 15 of them. As dogs large and small — a poodle named Snickers, a border collie, Finn — circle in and out of the room, he tells me that he’s just left his fourth attempt at rehab. “I’ve been six days clean,” he told me, “and I’ve already made up my mind I’m going to go out and get loaded today. I’m dopesick.”

Jardstrom, who is gruff-voiced and tall, dressed in cargo pants and a Yosemite National Park T-shirt, doesn’t necessarily need free needles from MCVHN. Though he’s homeless, he has enough money from his disability payments to buy them at Walgreens. He’s managed to remain both HIV- and hep C-negative, and knows enough now to stay that way. What he comes to MCVHN to find, he says, is a community of people who accept him for what he is — people he considers his adopted family, people who don’t judge him.

“I’m scared that I’m going to die an addict,” he says. “But I can’t see how I won’t.” His family — mom, stepdad, a brother and a sister —refuse to speak to him until he gets clean. “Their perception of an addict is that I’m a bad person. But I’m not. I have integrity. I care about other people more than I care about myself.”

Jardstrom and I talk for a long time, until he gets restless and has to do something else. At one point, talking about his father, the only member of his family who stood by Jardstrom until he died in 2008, he starts to cry. “He never gave up on me,” he says. “He was the only one.” I want to help him. I know I can’t. I am grateful he has found his way here.

Judith Lewis Mernit’s reporting on harm reduction in rural California was supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2018 Impact Fund.

Copyright Capital & Main

Continue Reading


Kavanaugh as History: For Women, the Past Is the Present

The hurt many women have felt after the Kavanaugh hearings goes well beyond the confirmation process of a Supreme Court nominee.

Vivian Rothstein




The clear message to women is: You can vote — but you still can’t be heard.


Women make up half the human race but the lived reality of women’s lives often feels completely invisible in American society. When Judge Brett Kavanaugh claimed unequivocally at last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that he hadn’t molested Dr. Christine Ford, he may have stated what he felt is true. His abuse of her, or any other woman that he may have violated, isn’t “imprinted on his hippocampus,” as it was on Dr. Ford’s, because it was insignificant to him. And that reality, on display and validated by members of the highest level of our government, is what was so painful to be reminded of last week. Even the compromise FBI investigation of Kavanaugh apparently involves the silencing of voices with something important to say.

The clear message to women is: You can vote — but you still can’t be heard.

When I became a feminist in the 1970s, having my consciousness raised about sexism and the structural disempowerment of women was a mixed bag. I started to see and deeply feel the many large and small ways women are disrespected, degraded, ignored and patronized all around me. Reading a popular magazine, watching television, attending a party, listening to pop music all became assaults on my sense of self as a thinking, effective member of this society. It was hard to bear and difficult to avoid becoming an angry, raging “femi-Nazi,” as the political right likes to call outspoken feminists. How could it be that more men, living with and beside women, having been birthed and raised by them, don’t see those assaults too and stand up against them? Or stop committing them?

On the contrary, as we’ve learned from the controversy surrounding Brett Kavanaugh, in the 1980s — well after the birth of second-wave feminism — serial gang rape, sex with blacked-out, intoxicated women, the waving of genitals in “party” settings apparently emerged in the social settings of some of the most privileged, educated and religious young American Brahmins. These behaviors have little to do with sex and a lot to do with exerting power and control over women, and sometimes other men too.

The hurt many women are feeling after the Kavanaugh hearing goes well beyond the confirmation process of this man for the Supreme Court. The courageousness of Dr. Ford and the brutish response by Kavanaugh and some Republican senators dramatically opened a window on the invisibility and powerlessness of women and girls to this day. We’ve known it in our bones from our own experience, but now degrading women’s lives may be given official government approval.

Copyright Capital & Main

Continue Reading


No Walk in the Garden for the Urban Homeless

Throughout Los Angeles, landscaping is put to aggressive use, functioning as a weapon of anti-homelessness under the guise of beautification.

Julianne Tveten




AP Photo/Reed Saxon

The phenomenon of hostile landscaping in Los Angeles has further marginalized a swelling unhoused population.


Last May, in Los Angeles’ coastal Venice neighborhood, Adam Smith noticed a series of planter boxes in the middle of a familiar sidewalk. Affixed near the intersection of Third and Sunset avenues, mere blocks from a Google campus and a suite of oceanside cafes, the standalone planters ran roughly the length of a wall delineating a parking lot behind a luxury condo complex.

Previously, Smith told Capital & Main, a group of six to 10 homeless people had regularly slept in tents on that block, favoring it for its relatively plentiful street light. A volunteer for the Culver-Palms Burrito Project, which prepares and serves the titular food to the unhoused of West Los Angeles, he’d become acquainted with individuals living there over the course of several years.

Once the planters were installed, however, the sidewalk was clear. “That next day, after I saw [the planter boxes] for the first time, I went there to look around because I figured they were sleeping somewhere else,” Smith said. “I found people up around the corner, just, like, a block away.”

Companies are privatizing public space to create more “landscape” for their businesses.

Throughout Los Angeles, landscaping is put to aggressive use, functioning as a weapon of anti-homelessness under the guise of beautification. Just as both public and private architectural design throttle space available to the unhoused internationally — via, among other examples, spikes on ledges and bars on benches to discourage sitting and lying down — and cities such as San Francisco arrange boulders to deter homeless encampments, the phenomenon of hostile landscaping in Los Angeles has further marginalized a swelling unhoused population.

Where the sidewalk ends: Unidentified man, downtown Los Angeles. (Photo: Marco Amador)

Nearly 20 miles from Venice, a Los Feliz traffic median at the intersection of Vermont and Prospect avenues, and Hollywood Blvd., has regularly seen encampments arranged on its concrete ground, abutting a raised patch of desert landscaping and sycamore trees.

Christened “Vermont Triangle,” the median’s first redesign occurred in 2008, when the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency spearheaded a project to “improv[e] the pedestrian amenities” and “enhanc[e] the physical appearance of the existing median park.” According to the Los Angeles Times, this yielded seating areas, lampposts to echo those at nearby Barnsdall Art Park, and the sycamores. Eventually, unhoused people began to pitch tents, availing themselves of the median’s modest stretches of open public space.

Now, due to pressure from local business owners, Vermont Triangle is in flux. City Councilmember David Ryu’s office, the Times noted, plans to invest $18,000 in another redesign, following a 2013 re-landscape. The 2013 update was financed in part by the Hollywood Hotel and Kaiser Permanente, according to Jeff Zarrinnam, who serves on the board of governors of the East Hollywood Business Improvement District. (Ryu’s office couldn’t be reached for comment.) Current proposals range from adding art installations and neighborhood signs, which Zarrinnam said the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council and East Hollywood Neighborhood Council have floated, to putting in planters.

Zarrinnam said he supports “bridge housing,” a term the municipal government, neighborhood councils and local businesses use to favorably denote temporary homeless shelters and transitional housing. Yet reports indicate that the current state of temporary housing for many homeless people in Los Angeles County — who, as of May, numbered approximately 53,000 — is nothing short of abysmal. A recent investigation by radio station KPCC found infestations, harassment and medical negligence, among other scourges at various facilities throughout Los Angeles County, including those funded by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), which conducts the county’s annual homeless census.

Sidewalk in Los Angeles’ North Sea district. (Photo: Marco Amador)


Steve Diaz, an organizer for Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) who works with unhoused populations in downtown and South L.A., calls hostile landscaping of public space “the next level of criminalization” of homelessness. He alluded to an industrial neighborhood overlapping Skid Row, whose business owners call “The North Sea”: a cluster of converted seafood warehouses and factories painted the same hues of oceanic blue — complete with landscaped sidewalks.

“They started breaking the concrete and taking away from the sidewalk to place different types of flowers, whatever garden they were putting in,” Diaz said. “You have a major street [on] Skid Row that, at one point, was home to a lot of homeless folks now being gated off, and then the concrete being broken to start using these gardening pockets within the space to eliminate sidewalk access.” (Miguel Nelson, a North Sea business owner involved in the area’s marketing efforts, declined to respond publicly.)

As private property owners adopt guerrilla tactics to thwart homeless encampments, legal issues arise. Skid Row activist General Jeff Page has observed that, while property owners are permitted to control up to three feet of sidewalk extending from their buildings, “The North Sea is taking upwards of five to 10 feet of sidewalk, allowing only for ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance and zero space for homeless tents and/or encampments.” (The Los Angeles Department of Public Works stated that the North Sea sidewalk landscaping is currently under investigation and thus couldn’t comment further on the matter.)

What’s more, business owners in South L.A. have illegally installed fences around their property, which, according to Diaz, will eventually give way to sidewalk landscaping. Relatedly, Adam Smith has been corresponding with city officials to ascertain the permit status of the Venice planters. The West L.A. office of the Bureau of Engineering, which issues revocable permits, told Capital & Main that it did not have a permit on file for the planters. Without one, according to the bureau, “no portion of the public right-of-way, including sidewalk, is allowed for private use.”

Nevertheless, the planters remain and, according to Smith, have multiplied. Additional boxes, he said, are now ensconced in the sidewalk around the corner, to where the previously ousted people had first moved.

“For some people, [landscaping] sounds like a great idea,” Diaz said. “But you’re literally privatizing public space to create more ‘landscape’ for your business.”

Copyright Capital & Main

Continue Reading

Top Stories