Two people in white protective suits move a large package out of Clare’s Place and into a storage container in the parking lot on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Two people in white protective suits move a large package out of Clare’s Place and into a storage container in the parking lot on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

County leaders debate testing shelters for meth, fentanyl contamination

Some argue displacing residents from meth-contaminated housing could be a greater public health risk than the contamination itself.

EVERETT — A proposed Snohomish County Council ordinance is sparking new debate about the county’s first motel-to-shelter project.

In February, council member Nate Nehring, a Republican, pitched an ordinance to test county-owned housing at least once a year for methamphetamine and other chemical contamination.

In Washington, a property with meth residue at or above 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters is considered contaminated and requires cleanup by a certified contractor. There is no state contamination standard for fentanyl or other opioids.

Meth contamination has plagued low-barrier housing across the state, including Housing Hope apartments in Snohomish and Clare’s Place in Everett. In some cases, meth exposure persisted until residents or workers came forward with serious health concerns — and local authorities got involved.

“Clearly, there’s an issue with these housing facilities and contamination,” Nehring said at a council meeting last month. “Testing (would) ensure that when there is this contamination issue, we’re able to know about it.”

The ordinance would apply to two motels the county purchased in 2022 to convert into 150 temporary housing units for the homeless. Meth contamination discovered at the motels has caused significant delays in the project, initially expected to finish last year. The county is now on track to open the to-be-called “New Start Centers” in 2025.

Nehring worked with the county executive’s office as well as the facilities and human services departments to develop the ordinance. But at council meetings last month, Democrats Megan Dunn and Strom Peterson brought concerns about funding, displacement and the “science” behind contamination.

The vote, initially set for March 20, was pushed to May 1. The council wants to first review new drug contamination guidance that the state plans to release later this month.

‘Housing with dignity’

Back in 2022, Nehring and fellow council Republican Sam Low opposed the motel purchases.

“I’ve been very clear from the beginning that it’s not the county that should be doing this,” Low said at a meeting last month. “We should be supporting groups like Housing Hope and Catholic Community Services, groups who are already in the housing business.”

Now that the deed is done, Nehring said he wants to ensure the centers are “as successful as possible.”

Nehring said his ordinance would curb property damage, save taxpayer money and ensure safety at the centers. Decontamination would likely be easier and cheaper with regular testing than if the county allowed housing units to become contaminated over years, he said.

In large housing complexes like the New Start Centers, the state’s decontamination process can displace residents for months and cost millions.

“Do we have a funding source for that remediation?” Peterson asked at a council meeting last month. “What happens to the individual if they’re living in a unit that tests positive?”

Dunn said the county should first have a plan to move residents in case of contamination, and avoid moving residents if possible. She proposed a substitute ordinance to only test units when they’re vacant, unless the tests are for asbestos and lead.

“We have strong evidence that displacement increases the risk of death and adverse outcomes,” she said in an interview. “We should provide housing with dignity.”

Up to 24.4% more people who experience homelessness and inject drugs die if they are forced to move or lose their shelter, according to a study the National Library of Medicine published last year.

In October, about 60 formerly homeless residents were forced to evacuate the Catholic Community Services-owned Clare’s Place due to meth contamination. The nonprofit, the county and other local agencies scrambled to set up 30 Pallet shelters. The residents were displaced for five months, and only half returned when the apartments reopened. It’s unclear if all former residents found shelter elsewhere.

Clare’s Place, though privately owned, serves as a cautionary tale for the county.

“That’s the only place I can think of to compare (for) our obligation to test and to keep residents safe,” council Chair Jared Mead said at the meeting. “And, as a fiscal matter, keep our property up to snuff and not have to close it.”

Mead, a Democrat, showed support for Nehring’s proposal.

”We should be testing these units,” he said. “It’s not only best practice financially, but it’s obviously a way to try to keep the residents and the workers safe.”

‘Could we get our money back?’

In January 2023, the county’s Point-in-Time count found 1,285 people living without permanent housing. Almost all had self-identified mental health or substance use disorders.

When the county first purchased the motels, Nehring pitched an ordinance requiring future residents with substance abuse disorders to enter treatment. It failed in a 3-2 council vote. Democrats argued the rule would discriminate against residents, and as a result, risk access to federal dollars.

Instead, the county plans to provide shelter under the Housing First model, where sobriety and behavioral health treatment is not required. The centers will help connect residents to voluntary treatment.

Nehring’s latest measure had proposed testing at all county housing, but later excluded housing for employees and contractors. Dunn argued the council should hold all county housing to the same safety standard. Her suggestion included housing for employees and contractors, as well as the jail.

And Peterson raised privacy concerns, since test results — including drug levels in a specific unit — would be public record.

“I think these are good reasons why we shouldn’t have ever bought these hotels,” Low said at the meeting. “My question for the exec’s office is, ‘If we sold the two hotels that we purchased, could we get our money back from them?’”

Ken Klein, executive director for the county, told Low he didn’t think the county could “relinquish control” of the motels.

Klein also said the county plans to test the centers for meth regardless of the council vote. The ordinance would just ensure testing happened at least once a year.

‘Science behind the contamination’

In public comment at the council meeting, Brian Lusby, a local health care worker, noted the dearth of information about drug contamination health risks.

Peterson pointed to a state Department of Health work group for potential solutions.

Comprised of state health officials, county health officers and tribal leaders across the state, the Methamphetamine and Fentanyl Contaminated Properties Workgroup began meeting in December.

The group is developing statewide guidance for drug contamination safety and cleanup, an “emerging issue for several local jurisdictions in Washington,” according to a letter from the state health department to tribal leaders.

In the 1990s, the state established contamination laws based on meth labs, not drug use. The law has seen few changes, creating challenges in local response.

Current law largely puts the onus on local law enforcement and health officers to address potential contamination. The law is focused on hotels, motels and other private properties self-reported or reported by law enforcement.

“This is definitely an issue that’s happening not only in permanent supportive housing or transitional housing,” Peterson said. “They’re really trying to come up with some comprehensive ideas when it comes to the science behind this cleanup and the science behind the contamination.”

County Health Officer James Lewis is part of the work group. He said the goal is not to establish new science or regulations for drug exposure or contamination, but to develop a common interpretation of state law.

The work group plans to have documents ready this month for review by health officials across the state.

Sydney Jackson: 425-339-3430; sydney.jackson@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @_sydneyajackson.

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