Last night’s special meeting held by the Eureka City Council was called to hold a vote to suspend the Syringe Exchange Program (SEP) at HACHR within the city of Eureka. HACHR would first like to thank all individuals who spoke out about this issue in support of HACHR. Although the weight of testimony was 40-15 in HACHR’s favor, and though science was — as always — on the side of harm reduction, Eureka City Council members Bergel, Allison and Messner voted to restrict all SEP operations in the City of Eureka at the special meeting on Dec 10, 2020.

Public comment in favor of keeping HACHR’s SEP operational included individuals with esteemed titles such as Raymond Courtemanche with Bright Hearth Telehealth, Matt Curtis of California Department of Public Health, Office of AIDS, local OB/GYN, DO Carrie Griffin, and former County Health Officer Doctor Ann Lindsay. Not to mention the numerous community members, several with lived experience, who expressed deep concern about the consequences of the proposed resolution. Despite this, council members Bergel, Messner, and Allison already had their minds made up about the decision they would make during this meeting.

The actions taken by these three council members are reckless, dangerous, and rooted purely in emotion. These Councilmembers openly discussed their personal feelings of giving up on the relationship with HACHR throughout this and previous meetings. Their personal frustrations, based on PAST experiences with the organization, were prioritized over the CURRENT reality of HACHR’s best attempts to open communication and resolve conflict. They are not only putting the health and well-being of HACHR’s participants in jeopardy, but the lives of our entire community.

This, amidst a pandemic, as winter approaches, and after California Department of Public Health (CDPH) released a vulnerability assessment indicating Humboldt County is at an increased risk for HIV, Hep C, and fatal overdose. CDPH has also reported seeing increases in wound botulism related to injection drug use, and according to the CDC, HIV and HCV clusters are on the rise since COVID-19 began.

When City Council member Castellano suggested an amendment to the resolution to give HACHR until December 24th to continue services to better inform program participants about the resolution and give them a chance to prepare for the cessation of syringe services, City Council members Bergel, Allison and Messner voted against it. This decision leaves some of our participants with limited or no access to internet blindsighted — especially those who visit HACHR for supplies on a bi-weekly basis or more sporadically.

While this holiday season is going to be a challenge for most people during the pandemic, imagine how hard it would be for you if you were on the streets, and now had one less resource available to keep you healthy and safe. As many community members understand, our population of program participants must run all over town in order to access needed resources in our community. HACHR has worked hard to get all necessary harm reduction services under one roof, and has been able to offer our community members a vast array of harm reduction supplies and education, as well as referrals to other valuable resources. While syringe services get folks through the door, our staff of trained and qualified harm reductionists offer program participants the non-judgemental care that they are seeking. For some, this means safer smoking kits in order to stop injecting, while for others it means Medication Assisted Treatment- when they are ready.

HACHR has done every reasonable thing we could do to come into full compliance with the requirements of the City of Eureka. The city has perpetuated the narrative that HACHR has been uncooperative and non-compliant for the last 4 years. But the ordinance has only been in place since 2018, with the absence of quarterly reports only being an issue for 1 year, during a time in which the city — as they now admit — didn’t actually have the authority to control the program in this way. Nevertheless, Executive Director Allen gathered data from the past two years and created data reports to bring HACHR into full compliance with the city’s ordinance. The ED has built a relationship with Miles Slattery, who is now the official city manager. Executive Director Allen, along with HACHR board members, have attended mediation and worked to find common ground with the city. In this mediation, HACHR agreed to the following: put up a security fence at the 3rd Street location; allow an external evaluator to witness operations on-site; hire an on-site monitor trained in de-escalation to ensure all participants adhere to their agreements with HACHR and that no illegal drug sales or use happen on property; HACHR would begin mobile-only SEP services in June of 2021. The city agreed to help find funding for the vehicle through a grant application and Open Door offered to pay for the fence, pending council’s approval of the now-defunct agreement.

Limiting options for SEP access by requiring mobile-only does not align with harm reduction best practices; multiple programs providing increased access to sterile syringes through a needs-based distribution model and additional hours was suggested by Matt Curtis, a Harm Reduction Specialist with CDPH, as the best route to decrease the county’s vulnerability to rises in HIV, HCV and fatal overdose. However, in order to make a good faith effort and strengthen the relationship with the city council, HACHR was willing to move to mobile-only distribution and has practiced one-to-one distribution for years. Now, the city has decided that HACHRs SEP services must stop completely within the city limits and that the county program can immediately start covering an additional 15 hours of services, despite only currently operating two days a week for six hours total.

Beyond adding another barrier to the already dismal resources in Humboldt County, this resolution also fails at addressing the neighbor’s concerns about HACHR’s participants in the 3rd St. neighborhood. HACHR will still provide all other services despite the restrictions on exchange, and although we may see an initial drop in participation overall, it is likely that the participants that come in for other services are the same people who would have been coming in for exchange. Furthermore, many of these individuals live in the neighborhood, even if they don’t have a roof over their head, and won’t leave if HACHR stops offering exchange services. So, we are left with nothing but a short-sighted, discriminatory resolution that will leave many people, including the broader community, at greater risk for health disparities.

Building trust is a two-way street, and it appears that city council members Bergel, Messner and Allison never intended to invest in the process of healing the relationship with HACHR; they caused us and the city to waste time, money, and resources in an exercise of futility. The time for compromises is over. We are going to do everything we can to get syringes to those who need them. We will take every action available to us in order to make sure the needs of our population are met, and to protect the community as a whole.

We will continue offering all the services we are able to offer, and staffing our 3rd Street location as usual. We are also able to continue SEP services and outreach in Arcata. We ask you, our community members and supporters, to continue putting pressure on the city council. Write letters to the editor. Talk to your neighbors, friends and family members about harm reduction and how essential it is for the health of our community. We are grateful for your continued support and assure you HACHR isn’t going anywhere.