The Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) held an online meeting about its proposed Burien low-income housing project on Tuesday night, Feb. 23, 2021.

Over 140 participants tuned into the public webinar, which was the first held by the Seattle non-profit to give details on what its proposed Burien housing project will include.

DESC says it plans to acquire what is currently known as the Burien Professional Center at 801 SW 150th Street (map below) and build a permanent supportive, affordable housing project onsite. Construction is projected to start in early 2022.

Daniel Malone
Hosted by DESC Executive Director Daniel Malone, the online meeting also included appearances from DESC Director of Housing Programs Noah Fay and Director of Facilities and Asset Management Sondra Nielsen.

“One of the reasons we want to create supportive housing in Burien is because we are aware of the need there already,” DESC Executive Director Malone said. “It is important to DESC that this project will serve people already experiencing homelessness in Burien.”

When complete, DESC says the new $18 million project will feature 95 studio units of affordable housing with supportive services and indoor/outdoor community spaces for single adults who are disabled and formerly homeless. Twenty-five units will be used to house Veterans experiencing homelessness. DESC will continue to own and operate the building and provide its services there after completion.

The site will include a secure entrance and be staffed around-the-clock with at least two people trained in deescalation who can respond and manage tenant issues.

DESC currently has over 14 housing developments in the region, with another four – including Burien – in development. Malone said during the online meeting that other DESC projects have not affected neighboring property values.

“Our plan is to create permanent housing at this site in Burien,” Malone said, “not a shelter or crisis center – tenants will be housed with anticipation of being there a long time.”

Tenants at the site will sign a lease, pay rent, sign a “good neighbor” contract and receive permanent and independent housing, with 24/7 security. DESC will provide its services to tenants on site.

“It’s an apartment building,” Fay said. “The difference is that DESC will be bringing its services to the tenants.”

Below is a 39-minute, edited (for time) video of the one-hour meeting (“dead air” was removed, including a long period during Breakout Rooms, which were not recorded):

DESC also operated a shelter at a former Red Lion Motel in Renton, which reportedly had numerous 911 calls associated with it. In December, the City of Renton passed an emergency ordinance, claiming that “DESC was operating in violation of the city’s zoning.”

DESC says that the difference between its Renton operation with the proposed one in Burien is that this new project will be an apartment building, not a shelter. The organization does provide harm reduction for drug users, including distributing clean needles and condoms, as well as offering advice to users.

“Some people have an objection to harm reduction – some don’t understand that it doesn’t lead to worsening, but is associated with reduced drug use and crime,” Sondra Nielsen said during the meeting.

DESC says that its clients are actually less likely to be dangerous than the general public, and most are older. They say that tenants must sign “good neighbor agreements” which extends to behavior outside their apartments. DESC says it doesn’t believe there will be safety issues, but if there are, they call 911.

A local businessperson alerted us to a recent story on a downtown DESC shelter’s drug policy on, which was considered “sensationalized” by Malone.

“As for your question about our policy for our Burien supportive housing program, possession or use of illicit drugs is not permitted in our programs,” Malone told The B-Town Blog. “However, we know from experience that some DESC clients living with substance use challenges will struggle to comply with this. We take an open and honest approach with our tenants about this. Much like substance use in the broader community, many addictions play out in private and we work to connect people to treatment. Some people have substance use issues that can impact the broader community and we often treat those as lease enforcement issues.”

DESC is a non-profit behavior health organization that provides a wide range of healthcare services, including outpatient, treatment, street outreach, psychiatric, specialized medical treatment for opioid use and more. They operate a “mobile crisis team” that gives care to those in need 24/7 across all of King Cpunty. These two-person teams are often summoned by police, fire and other emergency first responders.

Below is a “Substance use and harm reduction: questions and answers” FAQ provided by DESC:

Q: What does DESC do to help clients with substance use problems?
A: Our range of services includes substance use disorder treatment and several harm reduction approaches to help lower risks to people who unfortunately engage in risky behaviors. DESC substance use disorder counselors and opioid treatment nurses provide motivational interviewing and individual and group counseling. DESC providers write prescriptions for medication assisted treatment, including suboxone (buprenorphine) and vivitrol. In addition to DESC-provided treatment services, DESC case managers coordinate access to other treatment options including methadone programs, medical detox, and inpatient substance use treatment.

At DESC, conversations with clients about changing, reducing, or eliminating their substance use are a large part of our work. We try to reduce the stigma around substance use to encourage clients to share openly and honestly about their experiences and needs. We speak to clients frankly and directly about the risks and dangers of substance use and the options available to them to help decrease their use.

We recognize that recovery is a bumpy road for many people. We look for the positive and celebrate successes and offer support when there are setbacks and recognize resilience. For those people who continue to engage in risky behaviors, harm reduction approaches reduce risks and create opportunity for future success. Harm reduction is not harm acceptance. Instead, it is an active and pragmatic approach to help people who continue to use substances despite serious negative consequences.

Q: What are the types of harm reduction interventions for people who inject drugs?
A: Injection drug use has multiple serious risks including chronic disease transmission (such as HIV and Hepatitis C), injury to the vascular system, other medical complications, and death fromoverdose.

Providing drug users with clean needles is the most common intervention. This is a well- researched strategy that has not been shown to encourage people to use drugs. In fact, the evidence has long shown that the opposite is true: it helps people to see that others are concerned about their well-being, avoids disease transmission from using dirty needles, and provides an opportunity for more engagement to help people discover a path toward recovery.

Other well known forms of harm reduction include nicotine replacement products such as gum or patches. People are still consuming nicotine but experience less harm than they would if they smoked cigarettes.

Some less common forms of harm reduction that some people have shown a willingness to try instead of injecting drugs are smoking and administering drugs rectally, otherwise known as a “booty bump.” These strategies help people avoid the dangers of IV injection, including death, phlebitis, vasculitis, cellulitis, vein scarring, abscesses, and systemic infections. These strategies save lives, and they also save health-care dollars. A pipe costs between $.40 and $1.30, and a clean needle costs $.09. The lifetime cost savings of avoiding HIV infection in a single person is between $229,800 to $338,400.

Q: Does harm reduction encourage drug use?
A: No. Various harm reduction strategies such as provision of clean syringes for people who inject drugs have been in use for decades. These strategies have been shown to reduce harm without increasing substance use. As a result of decades of research, harm reduction interventions are a standard and evidence-based practice in both medicine and social work.

DESC has partnered with the University of Washington on several studies on our harm reduction model. In study after study, we have found harm reduction is associated with reduced drug use, reduced harm and – at the community level – reduced need for publicly funded services.

A UW study of our Navigation Center found that our approach incorporating both treatment and harm reduction strategies led to less substance use amongst guests. Participants reported decreased substance use over the course of the evaluation, showing a 23% reduction in prevalence of alcohol and other drug use for each passing month at the Center. This finding corresponds to those of our prior studies that have shown the provision of shelter and housing within a harm-reduction framework is associated with reduced substance use and other positive outcomes.

A common belief exists that the only path to recovery is immediate and total abstinence from substance use and/or a tough love approach. While this approach works for some people, others have not been successful and have worsening outcomes over time. This means that other approaches are required if we hope to meet the treatment needs in our community.

Q: Who does DESC serve?
A: DESC helps adults with the complex needs of homelessness, substance use disorders, and serious mental illness achieve their highest potential for health and well-being through comprehensive services, treatment, and housing. The majority of our clients live with overlapping conditions including severe and persistent mental illness, substance use disorders and other disabilities. We do not serve children or families.

Q: What role does housing play in addressing substance use disorders/addiction?
A: Vulnerable clients are more easily engaged in robust clinical services and experience greater success once the chaos of living on the streets has been eliminated from their lives. Eliminating this debilitating chaos is achieved when a chronically homeless adult is provided a safe and permanent apartment of their own. You can learn about DESC’s success in decreasing substance use and saving taxpayer dollars at our 1811 building here.

Q: Why do you use slang terms such as ‘booty bump’?
A. A central feature of DESC’s work is meeting clients where they are. To do this, we use informal language that’s familiar to the people we’re trying to reach. Services don’t work if people don’t trust or understand what’s being offered. The use of non-clinical language helps us connect with people, opening the door to conversations that lead to behavior changes and long- term recovery.

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