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)

Nonprofit knew of Clare’s Place contamination for months before evacuation

Residents fled the Everett shelter in October due to dangerous levels of meth in the building. Its operator knew of contamination since April.

EVERETT — The nonprofit that operates Clare’s Place, a supportive housing complex in south Everett, knew of drug contamination for months before evacuating the building in October, county records show.

The revelation comes as residents moved back into their apartments this week.

In September, Clare’s Place staff began reporting headaches and air quality concerns. Tests revealed high levels of methamphetamine and fentanyl contamination in 48 of the 65 units — levels that could cause behavioral changes, respiratory problems and other illness.

Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, the nonprofit that operates Clare’s Place, consulted with the county health department and evacuated the building at 6200 12th Drive SE for decontamination.

But the nonprofit discovered contamination months before staff made health complaints. From March to early September, the nonprofit had 27 units tested for contamination, according to reports obtained by The Daily Herald. Starting in April, tests revealed meth contamination in units up to more than 2,600 times the state standard of 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. Tests also detected fentanyl, but the state has not determined what level of the drug is safe for human exposure.

Catholic Community Services held off on testing the entire building or notifying the health department until staff began reporting concerns in September. The nonprofit did not evacuate or have any of the units decontaminated until October.

“With the dramatic increase in consumption of dangerous drugs at Clare’s Place we took the step to test 27 units at Clare’s Place that we suspected had Methamphetamine smoking occurring in the units,” wrote Will Rice, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer, in an email to county officials in mid-September. “We have now received the results and we believe we have a very dangerous situation.”

Before testing the rest of the rooms, the nonprofit began requiring staff to wear N95 masks and restricted its visitor policy to prevent drug dealing. The nonprofit also began issuing lease violations to residents who lived in units found to be contaminated at more than five times the state level, Rice wrote in his email.

Clare’s Place opened in 2019. It has been a refuge for those living without shelter. The permanent supportive housing complex follows a “Housing First” model, meaning people do not have to prove sobriety for entry. Instead, those who live there are connected to behavioral health and addiction treatment resources.

The delay in contamination testing and evacuation was, in part, because the nonprofit only tested units when staff suspected illicit drug use, said Helen McClenahan, spokesperson for Catholic Community Services. For the nonprofit to evict a resident due to drug-related property damage, they have to go through court, which takes about three months. And tenant rights laws can prevent the nonprofit from entering individual units for drug testing or cleaning, McClenahan said.

“In most of those cases, we worked with that individual to help change their behavior,” she said.

Per state law, the county health department doesn’t have authority to require contamination testing at private properties, or evacuation when they are contaminated. Instead, the department can post a Health Officer Order on contaminated property prohibiting its use and requiring decontamination. The county health department must approve decontamination results before lifting the order.

Clare’s Place is not the first Catholic Community Services’ shelter to be contaminated. Last year, the nonprofit had to decontaminate housing units in Bellingham. But Clare’s Place is the biggest such project yet, McClenahan said, costing the nonprofit at least $1 million.

By Oct. 14, Catholic Community Services moved the residents out of their homes. Some moved into 30 emergency Pallet shelters. Others stayed at the Farwest Motel across Evergreen Way, or found shelter elsewhere.

The nonprofit hired Accurate Assessment Decon, a state-certified drug lab cleanup company, to decontaminate the building starting in November. The county signed off on the work last week.

At the time of evacuation, about 60 people lived at Clare’s Place. Four months later, about 25 to 30 residents are expected to return.

“We’re very tired, but happy to be in a place with running water and bathrooms,” said one resident, who has been living in a Pallet shelter and asked for anonymity for safety reasons. “We just don’t know what each day is going to bring us, so we live day by day, and sometimes hour by hour.”

By the time units cleared inspection, some residents had used housing vouchers to move into other supportive housing units, McClenahan said. Others decided to enter drug addiction treatment.

Catholic Community Services may start screening prospective tenants to determine if they have a substance use disorder. In that case, leadership may work with applicants to help them find treatment or housing elsewhere, McClenahan said. The nonprofit may also begin regularly testing its low-barrier housing for contamination.

“We want tenants to know they have to be good stewards of the building, and public dollars,” McClenahan said.

But Catholic Community Services isn’t moving away from Housing First. The nonprofit must provide low-barrier housing to keep government funding, McClenahan said.

Clare’s Place is also working on a new HVAC system — originally intended to reduce energy use by recirculating air — to increase fresh air flow in the building.

The problem of drug contamination is countywide. Last year, the county found contamination in a Housing Hope-owned apartment complex after at least one resident became ill. In 2022, tests revealed meth contamination in two motels the county intended to use as emergency shelters. The motels remain contaminated.

“How do you address homelessness in the midst of a drug epidemic?” McClenahan said. “It’s very complicated.”

Overall, residents remain supportive of Clare’s Place and its mission to provide low-barrier housing. But they are concerned about how drug exposure could affect their health.

In Snohomish County, temporary shelter and permanent housing options tend to put everyone under the same roof, whether they use drugs or not. Drug addiction affects those who are homeless at a disproportionate rate, but at least 70% of people who are homeless do not use drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

And with contamination, the actions of a few can harm everyone in the building. Living in meth-contaminated properties can cause behavioral and sleep problems, respiratory illness, skin and eye illness, and headaches, according to a study published in the National Library of Medicine in 2020. Scientists also detected meth in hair samples of adults and children living in contaminated properties.

Despite hurdles over the past four months, the anonymous resident said Clare’s Place has saved many lives, including theirs.

“Things might not be perfect,” the resident said. “But gosh darn it, we have a roof over our heads.”

Remaining residents should be in their apartments by the end of this week, McClenahan said. Then the nonprofit will begin leasing its open units.

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

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