By Steven Barker
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Behind Hyatt House Apartments, on the corner of Belmont and Harrison, is an alcove the size of two parking spots. Two dumpsters line the entrance acting as a barricade. Pillows, blankets, clothes, water bottles, newspapers, and needles are strewn about. All left behind by the growing number of homeless and drug users who treat the area like their living room.
The high walls and unlocked dumpsters offer comfort and privacy for sleeping or using drugs. The residents in the surrounding apartments have ignored the illegal activity for years, but have noticed an increase in drug use and vandalism over the pasted few months.
Ken Hansen who’s been managing The Hyatt House Apartments for the past seven years said that the space was originally used for tenant parking, but was discontinued due to regular break-ins and the need to create room for trash receptacles. Ultimately, he hopes to build a fence and is waiting for approval from his boss.
“I’m not sure if it’s the change in seasons or the economy, but I’m cleaning up back there three to four times a week,” Hansen said about the increase in vandalism and littering.
Lee Kus who has lived in the building adjacent to the alcove for the last 23 years has also noticed an increase in illegal activity. In early May he had to perform CPR on a heroin-overdose victim while waiting for paramedics to arrive. “I used the New CPR were you don’t have to breath into the person’s lips,” he said about the incident. “You just give pressure to the chest to create airflow, and do it to the beat of the Bee Gee’s song ‘Staying Alive.’” Paramedics arrived on scene and the man survived. Kus later learned that the man had just been released from jail and his tolerance for heroin had dropped while incarcerated.
According to Seattle Police Department crime statistics, drug offensives have been on the decline in Seattle since 2010, in which 2,108 arrests were recorded, compared to 1,247 arrests in 2013. However, the number of heroin-related deaths in 2009 was 49, while in 2012 it was 84, according to University of Washington’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute.
Drew S. Fowler of the SPD Public Affairs Unit said that Seattle officers are focusing on the drug sellers and not the drug users. “When encountering a nonviolent drug user, the person will be run for wants or warrants, and the drugs will be confiscated for destruction. While it is an arrest-able offense, it won’t be prosecuted,” Fowler said.
Many residents who live in the area surrounding the alcove have had little success when calling police to report illegal activity. “I’ve called the police 40, 50, 100 times,” Kus said. “Sometimes they come, sometimes they are busy. If there is someone in danger, they come right away.”
Fowler stated, “Calls are graded on the immediacy of the response, and a person personally consuming heroin, which will not be prosecuted by our current elected officials, is low on the priority list.”
Most drug users don’t benefit from arrest. If the man who Kus performed CPR on had spent time in a rehab facility as opposed to a jail cell, it is possible that he wouldn’t have returned to the alcove with the intention of using heroin. Accessible rehabilitation programs seem like a better solution than police officers kicking out the offenders every time that a complaint is called in. There are projects in the works, but they lack funding.
“There is a pilot program in regards to jail deferral for drug users which mandates treatment rather than jail time. But this is still in the early phases and, like everything, costs tax dollars,” Fowler said.
This leaves the residents surrounding the alcove with few options. A good number of the people who frequent the alcove are quiet and pick up after themselves, but it’s the ones who spray paint the walls, throw their trash, and leave needles behind who the residents would like removed.
“There is a two-year-old girl who lives in this building, so I always pick up needles as soon as I see them, usually without gloves,” Kus said.
One resident who wished to remain anonymous worries that the drug use will bring down her property value.
Until rehabilitation programs are put in place, the best option for the residents in the area is to call police when they see illegal activity. In the case of an emergency, 911 should be called, and in non-emergency situations, 206-625-5011.
According to the University of Washington’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute, heroin use among people between the ages of 18 and 29 has been on a steady incline since 2003. Because of an increase in drug overdoses, Seattle passed the “911 Good Samaritan overdose law” in 2010, which provides immunity from prosecution for drug possession charges to overdose victims and bystanders who seek aid in the event of an overdose.