Seattle, Wash. — In downtown Seattle, where musicians serenade shoppers, you find heroin addicts sharing alleys with rats.
“Cooking up my dope, black tar. This is typical Seattle heroin. You get just a little shot for ten dollars." said 35-year-old Cheyenne who has been shooting up heroin for 15 years. She has tried to quit heroin several times, but its grip is too powerful. “It’s horrible. It’s disgusting. It’s wretched. It’s a monster," said Cheyenne.
For those on the streets, every syringe of heroin is a game of Russian roulette. “You never know what you’re gonna get. You know, you buy it and whatever you get, you get. Some is really potent. Some is not. You never know. You can get stuff that’s not even real and it would kill you.” said Cheyenne.
In Seattle, public overdoses are on the rise. According to Seattle Fire Department records requested by KIRO 7, the overwhelming majority are in public places including, including city hall, the Central Library, Municipal Court, downtown Macy's, the Nordstrom flagship store and Met Market in Queen Anne.
2016 DRUG & ALCOHOL OVERDOSES
"It's an epidemic out here," said addict Keith Byman who has overdosed twice and suffered a stroke. In the heart of the downtown shopping district, a young heroin addict told us she had overdosed that morning.
"Just about an hour ago, I was woken up by two very sweet employees at the Nordstrom family restroom on the top floor. I made a shot that would have killed me for sure," said the woman who asked that we conceal her identity.
Nordstrom told KIRO 7, “Our restrooms and lounge areas are meant to be a convenience for our customers. If we hear of someone who isn’t using the space as it’s intended to be used, we’ll immediately address it.”
The McDonald's at 3rd and Pine is a popular destination for addicts looking to find a hideaway for a hit. "If you buy something at McDonald's for instance, you can get in the bathroom," said Dawn Roth who overdosed and nearly died of a heroin overdose a week earlier.
The owner of that McDonald’s, David Santillanes, told KIRO 7, “We have faced many neighborhood issues on 3rd and Pine over the years, and as a result; we've hired private security to be on-site each and every day. Is it costly? Absolutely. It is a substantial cost to our business...”
2015 DRUG & ALCOHOL OVERDOSES
Since 2014, Seattle Fire has responded to 2,677 overdoses. “The number and the rate of heroin overdoses, non-fatal and fatal are clearly the highest in downtown Seattle. I know it's under reported. Only half the time is 911 called,” said University of Washington drug researcher Dr. Caleb Banta-Green.
Every addict we met in Seattle had overdosed. "I've died lots of times, been brought back to life by firefighters, EMTs and friends also using Narcan. More than I can count," said heroin addict Robin Towner Buck.
The majority of drug overdoses are heroin and about three-quarters of all fatal overdoses in King County involve an opiate of some kind. Inmates released from jail are particularly vulnerable to overdosing.
“Their physical tolerance, their body’s ability to handle opiates drops and it drops in as little as five days. They come back out and they use at that old amount, but their tolerance is down here and they overdose and die,” said Banta-Green.
With addicts overdosing in their bathroom, employees of restaurant RN74 said they are fed up. While customers dine on $98 steaks, addicts like Cheyenne are cooking up $10 hits of heroin in the back alley. Cheyenne and her wife Rene moved from Fort Myers, Florida seven months ago to start a new life.
“They say if you’re gonna be homeless, do it in Seattle. They have a lot of great benefits for homeless out here, but they kind of make it easy. So people kind of get stuck in that homeless cycle. They provide everything, clothes, food shelter. They don’t drug test you or anything,” said Cheyenne. Rene starting using heroin, for the first time, just two weeks ago. Cheyenne said it is much easier to find heroin in Seattle.
"You can walk down the streets and say ‘black, black, black’ and boom, within a couple minutes you’ll find it.” said Cheyenne. Their seven-month-old baby is in state foster care as they struggle with addiction and homelessness.
Overdoses are overloading Seattle Fire and diverting crews from other emergencies. Each call costs at least two-thousand-dollars, costing taxpayers millions since 2014.
2014 DRUG & ALCOHOL OVERDOSES
Seattle’s official destination marketing organization is concerned the so-called “street scene” will cost the city conventions. “Visit Seattle” is the official destination marketing organization for the city and Tom Norwalk is the organization’s president and CEO. He believes homelessness, drug abuse and aggressive panhandling are hurting Seattle’s image.
“We’ve had many comments from planners about their concern about the behaviors on the streets and if their delegates would feel safe. We recently had a group that decided to go to a California destination in 2021 just because of that feeling. They just didn’t quite feel safe downtown. The street scene is going to hurt us. It can catch up with us. It hurts our brand. It hurts the impression of the city,” said Norwalk.
In the alleys and on the sidewalks of downtown's most popular shopping and tourist destinations, ambassadors with the Downtown Seattle Association pick up syringes. In September, they picked up 518 needles. That is 213 more than September of 2015. Leroy Shumate found a syringe at the front entrance to his downtown men's store.
"There was a needle that someone used for heroin right there," said Shumate who has been selling clothes in downtown Seattle for 36 years. He has seen the styles change, but the struggles on the street continue. Seattle is considering the idea of safe injection sites, similar to ones in Vancouver, British Columbia, where addicts can shoot up with medical personnel standing by to handle overdoses.
“It’s like taking you to the hospital so you can do drugs. That doesn’t work for me,” said Shumate.
Dr. Caleb Banta-Green is considered one of Seattle’s foremost authorities on opiate addiction. He believes safe injection sites could transform lives. “It keeps a person alive and no infectious disease for that day. It’s also valuable as it is the front door to a potentially longer pathway into recovery,” said Banta-Green.
The Seattle Central Library is among those public buildings that face the challenges of drug abuse and homelessness. The library has a social worker on staff to refer patrons to drug and alcohol treatment agencies. One Seattle woman who is homeless and addicted to heroin told KIRO 7 she’s anxious for help “because being alive isn’t very fun anymore. It hasn’t been for a while.”
Nordstrom response to heroin overdose in store restroom at 500 Pine Street
"Our restrooms and lounge areas are meant to be a convenience for our customers. If we hear of someone who isn't using the space as it's intended to be used, we'll immediately address it."
McDonald’s statement about drug overdoses and drug abuse at 1530 3rd Avenue
"The safety of our customers and our people is of the utmost importance and moreover, so is their experience at our restaurant. We have faced many neighborhood issues on 3rd and Pine over the years, and as a result; we've hired private security to be on-site each and every day. Is it costly? Absolutely. It is a substantial cost to our business... But it is an investment that reflects the interest of our customers and our people, and we must provide a quality dining and work experience for all of them. We always have, and will continue to do so, because it's the right thing to do."
David Santillanes, Local McDonald's Owner Operator, D. Lark Inc.
Seattle Public Library response to overdoses at 1000 4th Avenue
"The Central Library has a social worker available to help people with drug and alcohol addiction. Among other things, she can make appointments with treatment agencies for library patrons. The social worker said that she receives about one or two questions from patrons a month."
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