The Public Health — Seattle & King County needle exchange program will continue in Federal Way with no major modifications, even after a two-month pause allowing a 13-member task force to review the program’s operations.
The South County Outreach Referral and Exchange (SCORE) program has been in Federal Way since 2009 and allows people who use drugs by injection to exchange used and contaminated needles for new, clean syringes. In addition, the program works to build trust with individuals with drug addictions to help them into drug treatment programs, counseling, education and more.
Following a public controversy about the program’s presence in Federal Way in March, Mayor Jim Ferrell created a task force of local residents, business owners and community leaders to review and revise the SCORE program.
Following the final meeting of the task force on April 29, the mayor sent Public Health Director Patty Hayes a list of asks and modifications to the needle exchange prior to its return to operations in Federal Way.
“It’s our understanding the working group came to a consensus that this is a vital program for our Federal Way residents,” Hayes wrote in a May 10 letter.
In the letter, Hayes responded to inquiries of where and how the South County Outreach Referral and Exchange (SCORE) will work in town.
The needle exchange program will operate only in park and ride locations belonging to King County Metro, and private residences of Federal Way community members.
Hypodermic needles will not be provided to teens, nor is the program aware of any teens using the exchange program so far, Hayes said.
The program will continue to distribute needles on a needs-based model, as recommended by the CDC, which provides 100 needles at a time in order to promote social distancing and have program users visit the site less frequently.
SCORE will come to Federal Way 2-3 times per week Tuesdays through Fridays, depending on requests from Federal Way residents, Hayes said.
“It is not operationally feasible for the program to provide advanced notification” of when the program is coming to Federal Way, Hayes said.
Intervention resources and service referrals will continue to be provided to program users upon encounters, along with educating needle users about the proper disposal of equipment.
Public health “does not have resources to provide cleanup services outside of our program, though we are very supportive of the city providing this service,” Hayes said.
Public officials’ response
While public health voluntarily granted the program’s pause in March after a Federal Way resident posed as a drug user and shed light on the needle exchange operations, Ferrell said he is disappointed in the lack of changes.
“Ultimately where we really disagree, at the core this [and] where we see divergence is the amount of needles they’re distributing,” he said. “I strongly disagree with the amount of needles that are being provided in the City of Federal Way.”
Recently, dozens of photos have been posted to local Federal Way social media pages showing hundreds of needles littering nearby trails, protected wetlands, parks and homeless encampments. The mayor and several local citizens have said a majority of these needles are from the needle exchange program.
“This policy is not coupled with common sense,” Ferrell said, noting the program instead is “laced with facilitation.”
Moving forward, the city is going to make a more dedicated effort into documenting how many, what type of, and where needles are found in Federal Way, Ferrell said.
Federal Way residents have also been seeking input about the needle exchange program and its presence in town from public officials beyond the local municipality. At the county level, King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer said he has been opposed to the program since it was first voted on.
“This whole program has created a perfect storm of chaos around who’s in charge,” said von Reichbauer, who represents District 7 on the council, which includes Federal Way. The current state of the program’s controversy and lack of coordination “validates my initial opposition to me.”
The needle exchange program is a Public Health — Seattle & King County program, not a King County program, he reiterated. The health department is jointly managed by the county and City of Seattle, and the King County Council helped develop the department’s operational plan, according to the county’s website.
Von Reichbauer said the program has endangered many young people and the community at large because of the unacceptable conditions it has created through environmental concerns, a humanitarian crisis and leadership confusion.
“I get no satisfaction from seeing it [the program] crash because of the crisis in my district,” he said. “We’re all frustrated by the incredible rise in drug use in our community … but creating a program without accountability does nothing to help.”
Residents take action
While some of his fellow volunteers see it as a victory, Federal Way resident David Zumwalt is crossing his fingers, hoping that another person struggling with drug addiction doesn’t fall back into homelessness because of a gap in the bridge of resources.
Zumwalt and several Federal Way community members have recently taken it upon themselves to visit various homeless encampments to connect with unsheltered individuals and offer them services.
On May 19, one of the volunteers helped their first person from an encampment near S. 304th Street decide to visit the emergency room at St. Francis Hospital for a screening to then be admitted to a crisis center — the initial step in a long road to drug addiction treatment and recovery.
“All these stars have to align for this kid to make it through the system,” Zumwalt said of the young man who went to seek treatment.
The encampments in Federal Way are familiar to Zumwalt, 48, who was previously a homeless drug addict in the city a few years ago.
The longtime Federal Way resident graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School. In college, he became a functioning alcoholic, he said. At 33, he got pancreatitis from his drinking, but that didn’t stop him.
“At that point, I was ready to drink myself to death,” he said. Shortly after, a former friend introduced him to ecstasy and cocaine, then meth. “After I did meth, I never went back to anything else.”
In a twisted way, meth saved his life, Zumwalt said, because it allowed his liver to heal when he swapped drinking for drug use. He soon became homeless and took up residency in the woods of Federal Way. He stole copper wire from construction sites and abandoned homes in order to make money while he was homeless.
“I burglarized so many homes … I was a bad person for years here,” he said. Connecting with those who are currently homeless and offering them support out of that lifestyle is his way of making amends to the community he personally wronged, he said.
On April 15, 2017, a friend of Zumwalt’s helped him into treatment with Battlefield Addiction and Big Change Recovery Homes, and he has been sober ever since.
But, in order to take that first step, one must “surrender to your addiction,” he said. “You have to want to get better … you have to cut all the ties to anyone that has connections to drugs and alcohol, or else you’re not going to make it.”
He knows the risks of living unsheltered firsthand and said the seeming unwillingness from law enforcement agencies in arresting or jailing people who steal and commit other crimes, combined with services such as the needle exchange, has turned Federal Way into a destination for drug users.
Learning of the public health SCORE program and its impacts on the nearby natural areas, Zumwalt felt enough is enough. He and a group of residents banded together a few weeks ago, and work to document the environmental destruction tucked away from the busy streets.
“Just because they’re in the woods doesn’t mean it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said.
Zumwalt, who now works at a mental health crisis center, uses his past life experiences — and past photos — to connect with individuals in encampments. This immersive approach was sparked from the city’s lack of action, he said.
“I definitely think they’re not doing enough,” he said of the city.
As a former addict, Zumwalt said he is against the number of needles distributed through the needle exchange program.
“We’re making it way too comfortable for people to be homeless drug addicts in Federal Way,” he said.
Cleanups, costs and more questions
At the May 18 Federal Way City Council meeting, several citizens spoke in opposition to the needle exchange van and inquired about the city’s efforts in cleaning up homeless encampments.
Mayor Ferrell said in the past five years, the city has closed and cleared about 200 homeless encampments. For particularly hazardous sites with needles, specialized contractors have been hired to clean up those encampments.
The Federal Way Police Department’s Special Operations Unit regularly responds to encampments on public property throughout the city. For encampments on private property, officers and city employees work with the land owners to trespass people and provide service referrals.
The Mirror has filed a public records request seeking the total cost the city has spent on these cleanups. The expenses are not a budget line item, and each clean up varies in price, therefore not kept track of collectively, according to the city. A records request has also been filed regarding the locations of all the cleared encampments in the past five years.
Zumwalt said although he has not lived in a camp for about five years, he could still go back to all the different camps he knew about and “they are all still there,” leading him to doubt the city’s claim of clearing hundreds of encampments in five years.
City officials highly discourage residents from entering or seeking out encampments to visit for the safety of all parties involved, partly due to mention that some residents may be armed.
“Sadly, conflicts have arisen between emotionally unstable occupants and concerned outside parties, so if firearms are involved, contact with occupants should be avoided at all costs so that regrettable actions are not taken,” said Community Development Director Brian Davis in an email to a resident who has recently visited encampments.
Encampment cleanups and treatment referrals should be left up to the city and service professionals, Ferrell said. If a resident is aware of an encampment or needles in public spaces, they are asked to notify the city.