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Seattle's Heroin Use Through The Eyes of Street Sweepers

Lee Townsend with the Metroplitan Improvement District checks his "hotspots" in Belltown for litter...and worse.
KUOW Photo/Amy Radil
Lee Townsend with the Metroplitan Improvement District checks his "hotspots" in Belltown for litter...and worse.

Over the past year, street sweepers in downtown Seattle saw a dramatic increase in the number of syringes on the ground. But those numbers have declined since March. They’re a data point in the larger debate over policing and drug use downtown.

At 7 a.m., Lee Townsend starts hitting his “hotspots” in Belltown – the Cinerama, the Crocodile – those high-traffic nightspots where patrons are most likely to leave popcorn bags, cigarette butts and other trash. He sweeps up the litter, then makes a note in his log.

He may call for assistance from a colleague with a power washer over the radio summoning him or her with a code number.  “If we run across a needle, it’s a 621-N. If we run across dog feces or human feces, that’s a 612-L,” Townsend said. “So everything we do has a code. And everything we do also is documented.”

Townsend works for Seattle’s Metropolitan Improvement District. His detailed records provide hard numbers for the downtown tenants who pay for these services.  They also make him a front-line observer of downtown life.

More residents with dogs means more 612-L on the streets, and more syringes mirror the trends around heroin use nationwide.

Joshua Curtis with the Downtown Seattle Association said street sweepers picked up 753 needles in March, almost 500 of them in the “retail core.”  

“And really since 2013 we’ve seen I believe it’s a 500 percent increase in needles that we find on the ground and we pick up and safely dispose of. That was astounding and most of that has happened in the past year,” Curtis said.

In April, Seattle police announced 95 arrests as part of the city’s “9-And-A-Half Blocks Initiative” to curb downtown drug dealing. City agencies moved bus stops and newsstands and closed alleys to keep drug dealers away.  

Downtown Seattle Association spokesman James Sido said street sweepers have collected fewer needles in April (649 total, 292 of which were in the retail core) and the first part of May.

“At first blush it would lead one to believe that because some of the element that was dealing the drugs had been moved out of that area, that’s since caused the decrease in the needles,” Sido said. 

But UW research scientist Caleb Banta-Green calls the downtown focus a “squeeze the balloon” strategy. He said the needle collection area is too small to be of significance to researchers.

“There’s no doubt it can make it happen in that small area, but everything we know is going to point to it’s just going to move somewhere else,” he said.

The downtown crime initiative does include Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion or LEAD, a program credited with helping drug offenders make lasting changes. The offenders who meet the criteria for the program receive social services instead of being arrested.

But Banta-Green said it’s not being utilized. “In the process of this clean sweep of this nine and a half blocks, there was not a lot of diversion going on,” he said. “This looked more like good old-fashioned ‘lock up all the very low-level drug users and drug sales.’”

The downtown association’s Sido said there was frustration all around because most of those arrested were not eligible for the program. He said eligibility may be revised so more offenders qualify for treatment and services in the future.

Year started with KUOW: 2005