If not here, then where?
It's the question I just couldn't shake as I stood in an empty parking lot in front of an abandoned bank location along a stretch of South Tacoma Way a few days ago.
There were no homes, no playgrounds and no schools in sight. The area’s businesses — two car dealerships, a tire store, a trucking company and an auto leather interior shop among them — all fit the surrounding industrial landscape.
So would a much-needed opioid-treatment facility being considered for that very parking lot at 3727 S. Tacoma Way, I kept telling myself.
Among other things, the facility would offer methadone and buprenorphine therapies to people trying to shake addiction, which would be great for them and good for a city and county struggling with the negative consequences of those addictions. You know: homelessness, crime, that feeling that maybe society is fraying around the edges.
So what’s the problem?
For starters, the Tacoma City Council significantly complicated matters on Tuesday — and there’s a chance it could blow the whole thing up.
As The News Tribune’s Candice Ruud reported, the council officially submitted its concerns about the proposed location this week to the state Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery.
The council pointed to what it considers a lack of public outreach, a lack of transit access and, most of all, the fact that another medically assisted opioid-treatment facility currently is operated by the same company on South Tacoma Way.
According to Kelly Stowe, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Health Services, the council’s comments will “absolutely” be taken seriously.
“It’s something that the agency (proposing the facility) is definitely going to have to address,” Stowe said.
That’s clearly going to be a challenge. There’s not much Northwest Integrated Health can do about its preferred location for the facility being at the bottom of a hill or its "proximity" to the existing clinic, which, by the way, is 60 blocks away at 9720 South Tacoma Way ... in Lakewood.
The only real option would be to pick a new spot. That would mean starting from square one, a time-consuming process at a time when time is at a premium.
Predictably, some business owners near the proposed treatment facility think starting over would be just fine.
Chuck Hoffmeister, owner of the Sure-Fit auto leather interior shop across the street, is one.
“Absolutely not,” Hoffmeister said when asked whether he supports the proposed facility. “It’s just, they’re bringing more of the homeless people and stuff.”
Mike Krone, who manages the nearby Northwest Auto Loan, is another.
“Overall I support it, I just don’t want them to say, ‘Oh, here’s a closer local area for all the homeless people,' and now they’re trying to camp out, or vandalizing,” Krone said. “You know, we’re having vandalism problems already. It puts all of our businesses at risk.”
But is that really the case?
Not from what I could tell during a visit to the treatment facility already in operation at the other end of South Tacoma Way. There, people had a far different view. Most, in fact, had no idea the facility, in operation for a year, even existed.
“I didn’t know it was there until you just told me,” said Micah Blowers, a 33-year-old tattoo artist who works nearby. “If it’s helpful for people, why not?”
Emily Leske is the co-owner of BCI Properties, a property-management company down the block from Northwest Integrated Health’s Lakewood location. She was also unaware that her business was located within walking distance to a methadone clinic.
While Leske said she has sometimes seen people who appear to be experiencing homelessness in the area, she couldn’t directly attribute it to the treatment clinic. Homelessness is an issue throughout the region, after all.
When asked, Leske was also supportive of the businesses.
“Yeah, if it will help them, why not? As long as they have security,” Leske said.
The lone exception was Sofia Onishenko, the 25-year-old co-owner of Biscuit House, a nearby restaurant. Onishenko described an uptick in “bizarre” behavior at or near her business over the last several months — like agitated customers and one woman who passed out in her parking lot. While Onishenko couldn’t directly attribute any of it to the nearby treatment facility, she suspected it might be a factor.
For his part, Dr. Asif Rashid Khan, the CEO and medical director of Northwest Integrated Health, said that in over a year of business in Lakewood, the treatment facility has “not seen any complaints.”
So why does all of this matter? It's simple — because of the dire need for such facilities in our community in the face of a mounting public-health crisis.
Unfortunately, the Tacoma City Council’s shortsighted reluctance to embrace the proposed facility could present a major roadblock.
Currently, medically assisted opioid treatment is available at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department in Tacoma and three other locations in Lakewood, according to health department spokeswoman Edie Jeffers.
Jeffers said that there’s “absolutely” a need for more medically assisted opioid treatment facilities throughout the county, including Tacoma. She pointed in part to a recent report by the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Institute that identified more than 2,000 opioid injectors not in treatment throughout the county, including nearly 1,600 who’d like to be.
“You have an issue of access,” Jeffers said. “One of the barriers for treatment is we know that people who are addicted live all over the place. A long drive — maybe they don’t even have transpiration — and you’ve got a barrier right up front when a person is in that place when they’re ready for help.
“It makes it much more difficult.”
It certainly does.
“If you ask me, there should be another five or more facilities … in just Pierce County,” he said. “If you look at the whole city … I really cannot find a better location than where I picked.”
Which makes the rebuff this week by the City Council not just a little baffling but downright disheartening.
Especially given the lives at stake.