Storage containers and a dumpster sit in the parking lot outside of Clare’s Place on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Storage containers and a dumpster sit in the parking lot outside of Clare’s Place on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Displaced residents of Clare’s Place still believe in ‘Housing First’

The 65-unit supportive housing facility in Everett has been closed for months due to meth and fentanyl contamination.

EVERETT — For Mindy, Clare’s Place was the best thing to happen to her. It was also the worst.

Mindy and her friend Shirley Belanger moved into Clare’s Place shortly after it opened in 2019. The 65-unit apartment complex at 6200 12th Drive SE in south Everett provides permanent supportive housing for those who have been homeless for at least a year. The nonprofit follows a “Housing First” model — sobriety is not required for entry.

“I was drunk for 22 years,” said Mindy, who declined to provide her last name for privacy. “Clare’s Place gave me something to live for.”

But about four years after finding what they thought to be permanent housing at Clare’s, they would be uprooted again. Not once, but twice.

In October, health authorities advised more than 60 residents and staff to evacuate Clare’s Place after tests found fentanyl and methamphetamine contamination in 48 units as well as common spaces and offices. Tests revealed meth contamination levels nearly 2,670 times the state standard for decontamination. Although fentanyl was detected, the state has not determined what fentanyl level is safe for human exposure.

“It’s concerning,” Mindy said. “I know having that stuff in the air can cause cancer and other health problems.”

Methamphetamine smoke can contaminate surfaces, furnishings and personal items. Contamination can cause behavioral changes, respiratory illnesses and skin irritation, according to the county health department.

Workers at Clare’s Place, began reporting strange smells, headaches and general air quality issues in September, said Helen McClenahan, a spokesperson for Catholic Community Services. The nonprofit “immediately” had the building tested and reached out to the county health department. she said. Three weeks later, the department issued an order to evacuate and decontaminate the building.

Clare’s Place workers relocated to a trailer outside the building. Most residents moved into Pallet Shelter units the city and county bought for more than $400,000. Others found their own temporary housing. Fewer than 10 residents, including Mindy and Belanger, moved into Farwest Motel, across the street from Clare’s Place, for health reasons — Belanger is battling cancer. The nonprofit is paying for the motel stays, McClenahan said.

But on Dec. 15, a fire broke out in the motel. It displaced multiple residents and caused an estimated $1.2 million in damage. Mindy and Belanger said one of their friends, who also moved out of Clare’s Place, had to jump out a window. Five days later, investigators from the Everett Fire Marshal’s Office labeled the cause of the fire as “undetermined.”

“It hasn’t really affected us,” Belanger said. “We’ve enjoyed our stay at the Farwest.”

‘People do better when they’re inside’

Residents moved out of Clare’s Place on Oct. 14. As of late December, they still didn’t know when they’ll be let back in.

Mindy was homeless for years until she moved into Clare’s Place. Workers helped her get on medication. Now she has a healthier relationship with alcohol, she said.

“People do a lot better when they’re inside,” said Tedd Kelleher, housing division policy director for the state Department of Commerce. “They’re more likely to get help with their behavioral health, get a job and reunite with family.”

Since she moved into Clare’s Place, Mindy said she traveled across the country to meet her granddaughter for the first time.

Clare’s Place has seen some bumps since it opened, Mindy and Belanger said, noting some residents have problems that would be better addressed at a behavioral health facility. Mindy said she saved at least one person’s life with Narcan. As for drug use, Mindy and Belanger agreed people should have somewhere to stay regardless of their sobriety. But the actions of a few can ruin it for everyone else, Belanger said.

When the city discussed plans to help fund Clare’s Place back in 2017, about half of public comments submitted were against the development. One resident collected more than 100 signatures from neighbors in opposition. Later that year, the city approved a $200,000 grant and donated the land with the caveat it be used for low-barrier housing for at least 50 years.

“The worst part is feeling like everyone is judging us and thinking we’re all the same,” Mindy said. “Most of us are getting better, we aren’t addicts.”

That’s true, said Steve Berg, chief policy officer for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Due to the stress of being homeless and a lack of treatment, a disproportionate number of people who are homeless are addicted to drugs. But at least 70% of people who are homeless do not use drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“Most homeless people never use drugs, and most people who use drugs aren’t homeless,” Berg said.

After housing, Berg said the biggest impact on drug use is treatment. Drug contamination “comes with the territory” of low-barrier housing, Berg said, especially when drug treatment isn’t accessible.

“The homeless system ends up dealing with it because nobody else will,” he said. “There’s just not enough money for this kind of stuff. An important policy solution would be getting these (government and nonprofit) agencies to work together.”

In part because of the contamination at Clare’s Place, Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin set forth plans for a drug crisis task force. The task force, announced in October, is expected to begin meetings this winter.

The county and state are looking for ways to help. The state has left most supportive housing decisions to leaders at the local level, Kelleher said, but is open to a more involved role.

Earlier this month, the County Council approved a plan to invest about $114 million over five years for 550 new affordable housing and permanent supportive housing units, 150 emergency bridge housing units and more behavioral health resources. The county is in talks with local nonprofits about drug treatment and decontamination efforts, said county Human Services Director Mary Jane Brell-Vujovic.

“We have not backed away from Housing First,” Brell-Vujovic said. “People need to have their basic needs met.”

‘A really big project’

Drug contamination has thrown a wrench in plans for permanent “Housing First” complexes across the county.

Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, which owns and operates Clare’s Place and other similar facilities, also had to decontaminate housing units in Bellingham earlier this year. Two hotels Snohomish County bought for supportive housing, the Days Inn in Everett and America’s Best Value Inn in Edmonds, tested positive for contamination last year. This March, a Housing Hope-owned apartment complex in Snohomish was deemed contaminated after at least one resident fell ill.

Clare’s Place is easily the biggest decontamination project for Catholic Community Services, McClenahan said. Decontamination and related costs for Clare’s Place are projected to be around $1 million, and the numbers are growing.

State law requires owners of decontaminated properties to hire one of 13 state Department of Health-certified drug lab cleanup contractors. The nonprofit has contracted with AA Decon for the project. The company began to clean Nov. 2 and reported two-thirds of the rooms were cleaned by Dec. 11, McClenahan said.

“The goal is to hopefully finish in the next few weeks,” she said Dec. 13.

Craig Alger, who started AA Decon in 2022, said a project the size and scope of Clare’s Place can take two to four months. Then it could be another four to six weeks of post-decontamination testing and paperwork.

Tests found contamination at the Days Inn and America’s Best Value Inn about a year ago. This May, Snohomish County contracted with AA Decon to clean the former motels. Those projects were unfinished as of this week. Since Catholic Community Services is a private organization, Alger declined to share specifics on the project details or timeline for Clare’s Place.

“A building like Clare’s Place is definitely a really big project,” he said.

Alger said the best way for facilities to prevent severe damage from drug decontamination is to have good air filtration. Clare’s Place is replacing its entire heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, McClenahan said.

Aside from the hassle and cost for cash-strapped nonprofits, drug contamination affects vulnerable populations they’re trying to help.

“It’s unfortunate for vulnerable residents who get exposed,” McClenahan said. “The real victims are those living in close proximity to the drugs.”

It’s tough for nonprofits like Catholic Community Services to address the problem of drug use. Often, nonprofits must provide low-barrier housing to keep government funding, McClenahan said. And since the pandemic, it has become a lot harder to evict people for drug use.

“We now have to go to court for 90 days,” McClenahan said. “Someone could do a lot of damage in that time.”

McClenahan said she is not aware of any permanent evictions from Clare’s Place following the contamination. The nonprofit is exploring options such as screening prospective tenants for substance use that would lead to property damage.

Despite the disruption to their lives, Mindy and Belanger said they still support Housing First.

People use drugs “because they don’t want to feel,” Mindy said. “It’s healing for people to come to a place they can feel safe.”

Timeline of drug contamination at Clare’s Place

September: Clare’s Place workers report headaches and air quality issues. Catholic Community Services tests the building for contamination.

Sept. 22: Catholic Community Services notifies the Snohomish County Health Department that units at Clare’s Place have been contaminated with methamphetamine and fentanyl.

Late September to early October: The health department helps the nonprofit gather further information, confirming 48 of 65 units are contaminated.

Oct. 13: Health department orders residents and staff to evacuate. Pallet delivers 30 shelter units. They’re ready for move-in within 24 hours.

Nov. 2: AA Decon begins cleaning Clare’s Place, according to Catholic Community Services

Dec. 13: The nonprofit says two-thirds of the units are decontaminated. The nonprofit expects the building to be ready in about two weeks.

Dec. 19: Residents say they don’t know when they will be let back in the building.

A previous version of this story misrepresented how long AA Decon had a contract with the county and misstated the health department’s order for decontamination.

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

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