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Proposed Seattle Homeless Shelter May Allow Residents To Use Heroin

Supporters say it could help prevent overdose deaths, HIV and hepatitis C transmissions and keep used needles off the streets.

As Seattle continues to battle its heroin crisis, a group tasked with addressing the issue is pushing an unconventional tactic for helping homeless addicts. 

The Task Force on Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction, formed by the city in March, has put its support behind building a shelter where homeless addicts could use heroin under supervision, according to The Seattle Times.

Those who support such a facility say it could help prevent overdose deaths, HIV and hepatitis C transmissions and keep used needles off the streets. Taxpayers might benefit too, since the facility could potentially reduce public health services and criminal justice costs. 

The concept was first introduced by the People’s Harms Reduction Alliance, a group that organizes needle exchanges, The Times reported in April. The task force is expected next month to offer up a more fleshed-out plan for how the program would work. 

These discussions come at a time when heroin deaths are on the rise. 

In 2014, heroin-related deaths hit a 20-year high in King County: There were 156 heroin-related deaths that year, more than triple the number in 2009, according to government records.

Drug overdose is currently the leading cause of death among people who are homeless in the U.S., the medical journal JAMA concluded in a 2013 study. 

At the proposed Seattle facility, users would get clean needles and anti-overdose medications. They’d also get access to medical care and treatment opportunities, per the Times. 

A man lies in a tent with others camped nearby, under and near an overpass in Seattle on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. Seattle has t
A man lies in a tent with others camped nearby, under and near an overpass in Seattle on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. Seattle has the third-highest number of homeless people in the U.S. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Critics of the program say it would enable homeless people’s addictions and squandering taxpayers’ dollars.

I’m open to ideas,” Dori Monson, a radio host at local station KIRO, wrote in an op-ed. “Just not this one, which will only be another magnet for heroin users from around the country who will come to Seattle for a free apartment to shoot up with the government’s permission.”

“I’m told about all these savings these programs supposedly produce,” Monson added, “but we sure never see the benefits.” 

The proposition for this homeless facility comes about a year after Seattle declared a state of emergency, as a result of its growing homeless population. On a single night in January last year, King County identified 3,772 individuals living on the streets. That was a 21 percent increase from 2014.

Experts say the facility is just one element that fits into the larger concept of “housing first.” That approach encourages giving homeless people housing, and then addressing their health and employment issues.

In numerous studies across multiple U.S. cities, the approach has been found to keep homeless people off the streets and to cut down and to save taxpayers money.

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