Safe House in a Storm

Oakland's embattled needle-exchange program find a new house but loses its home.

After a New Year’s Eve party one year ago, the director of the Casa Segura needle-exchange program checked his voicemail. He found several frantic messages from a coworker. The first, in a quavering voice, said, “Chris, I just got a call from the fire department. They said the Safe House is on fire.” In the second message, the now-sobbing colleague said, “Chris, I’m here. The Safe House is on fire. It’s burning.” The third and final message said simply, “It’s gone, Chris. It’s gone.”

At four in the morning, Chris Catchpool jumped into his pickup and raced to Oakland’s Fruitvale district to find only the smoldering remains of Casa Segura’s drop-in center. In the darkened parking lot, a coworker stood beside him, staring up at the building’s blackened shell. “They got us, bro,” he said. “Man, they fucking got us.” The next day, stunned workers and supporters huddled in the parking lot, looking in shock at the devastation. Some wept. “What most got me was when the clients came by and started to cry,” says Catchpool. “It’s the only home some of them know.”

Police investigators say the accelerant-fueled blaze was intentionally set. It started in the second-floor kitchen, and within minutes enveloped the other offices, fanned by air from windows the arsonist purposefully left open. Investigators found no sign of a break-in, suggesting that the culprit possessed a key. Though the investigation remains open, authorities have little hope the case will be resolved.

The blaze left Casa Segura as homeless as many of the clients it serves. Now, one year after the fire, the center has found a new home — but not in Fruitvale, the heart of Oakland’s Latino population and point of entry for much of the city’s heroin. Due to fierce opposition from developers and politicians looking to revitalize the low-income community, Casa Segura is moving. Staff members believe the climate that led to the fire is the same one that prevented the center from reestablishing itself there.

The fire capped a contentious battle over the program’s presence in Fruitvale, which after years of neglect is undergoing a multimillion-dollar redevelopment. Opponents viewed the safe house as a magnet for drug users and criminals who endangered the neighborhood’s children and stood in the way of community improvement. Most of this improvement runs along International Boulevard, Fruitvale’s main commercial corridor. But the street also is home to much of Oakland’s drug activity. Casa Segura sat on the fault line between development and drug addicts, servicing the very population that developers want to clear out.

The center provided a “safe house,” as its name suggests in Spanish, for the area’s many drug users. There, addicts not only could exchange dirty needles for clean ones, but get wound and abscess care, HIV testing, counseling, drug treatment referrals, hot meals, and respite from the street and their addiction-consumed lives. Of the three mobile needle exchanges, Casa Segura operated in Oakland before opening the drop-in center in 1996, Catchpool said the Fruitvale site regularly attracted the most needles — typically between 7,000 to 10,000 of the 17,000 they received weekly.

Casa Segura was dedicated to helping curb the fastest-growing segment of HIV infections, the intravenous drug users, and their partners and children, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say constitute up to 40 percent of the nation’s 40,000 new HIV infections per year. And by virtue of its Fruitvale location, it also was targeting a community that is being disproportionately affected by the AIDS epidemic.

Historically, Latino AIDS cases have been proportionately low in Alameda County. While Latinos make up approximately 19 percent of the county’s population, between 1986 and 1997, they constituted only 8 to 9 percent of all newly diagnosed AIDS cases. In 1999, however, the number of local Latino AIDS cases jumped to 18 percent. County researchers attribute the jump to the fact that while AIDS rates for whites and African Americans have gone down significantly in recent years, rates for Latinos have not. Nationwide, Latinos now represent 20 percent of all new HIV infections, although they constitute only 13 percent of the population.

Supporters say Casa Segura’s departure will be a devastating blow to the local Latino community. Grace Reyes, a 44-year-old former Fruitvale drug dealer and current drug counselor, was one of the many heroin addicts who relied on the program since its inception. She credits Casa Segura not only with keeping her HIV-free, but saving her life. In 1998, she went to the center with a festering leg wound. A staff member diagnosed her condition as a deadly form of botulism commonly known as Flesh Eating Virus. They rushed her to the emergency room, and got her immediate medical attention.

Highland Hospital sees about 100 cases of Flesh Eating Virus per year, nearly all associated with drug addicts, and nearly all fatal. Addicts are susceptible to the abscesses and the virus because of the impurities found in the drugs they inject, which easily lead to infections. Abscesses are open, painful wounds. If left untreated, they also can lead to death. Reyes lost both her husband and an ex-boyfriend to infected abscesses. At the height of its operation before the fire, Casa Segura was treating 36 cases a week, about the same number as Highland, but at a fraction of the cost.

Although commonplace throughout Europe and Canada, such needle-exchange programs are still controversial in the United States, despite endorsements by the American Medical Association, the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Bar Association. California is one of only five states in which the possession and distribution of syringes without a prescription is still prohibited by drug-paraphernalia laws. In many cities in California, needle exchanges still are illegal.

Casa Segura began as the Alameda County Exchange in 1992, when a group of Oakland activists and former drug users set out to curb the growing epidemic of HIV and other communicable diseases spread by the use of shared needles. In its early years, the exchange was underground and illegal. Volunteers set up tables in back alleys or next to darkened railroad tracks, continually dodging police.

From 1993 to 1995, Oakland police arrested volunteers eighteen times for distributing needles. In 1995, five faced trial, ultimately winning acquittal on humanitarian grounds. Two other local cases ended similarly. Soon thereafter, newly elected District Attorney Tom Orloff declared needle-exchange prosecutions a “low priority” and discouraged police from going after them.

Oakland’s exchange finally was legalized in January of 2000 through the county’s declaration of an AIDS Health Emergency, a mechanism through which the county could override state law and legalize the distribution of clean syringes. Once the exchange was legalized, the county hired a coordinator to work with communities and the police department to help facilitate its “harm-reduction” efforts.

But at about the same time that the newly renamed Casa Segura opened a drop-in center at its first Fruitvale site, development in the neighborhood started to take off. So did opposition to the center’s presence, spearheaded by local Councilman and City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. He argued that the East 12th Street site was too close to the businesses a block away on International and right in the middle of a proposed development designed to replace the bleak parking lots around the Fruitvale BART station with plazas, businesses, services, and low-income housing.

By the end of 1999, Casa Segura’s three-year lease had expired. So Catchpool moved it from East 12th Street to the now-burned out building on San Leandro Boulevard just two blocks on the other side of the BART station and a half a block from Fruitvale Avenue. The new site infuriated De La Fuente, who vowed to “be in their face until they move,” even threatening to go after the center’s county funding if necessary.

Staff members say the police presence around the center intensified that summer. “Clients stayed away for fear of getting popped,” Catchpool said. Police arrested clients for possession of needles or parole violations caused by their possession. While the state of emergency protects the distribution of clean needles at exchanges, the possession of needles still is illegal. Clients are vulnerable to arrest as soon as they leave the exchange. “It’s absurd,” said county harm-reduction coordinator Susan Black. “It puts the police in the position of arresting people in possession of clean needles the county is asking them to use.” Consequently, needle collection fell from 10,000 to 2,500 a week.

In the months leading up to the fire, tensions at Casa Segura ran high. Adriana Aguinaga, who lives directly across from the burnt-out drop-in center, began seeing more addicts around when Casa Segura moved in. After finding ten needles in her front yard one day, she said, “I started closing the gate.” Although sympathetic to its work, she was uncomfortable having Casa Segura on her street, especially with children around. Meanwhile, a group of 40 parents appeared at a community meeting to express concern about the exchange’s proximity to an elementary school less than a half a mile away. And the Unity Council, a community organization that is one of the primary forces behind the new development, complained to De La Fuente about the center.

Catchpool said he worked to curb the center’s detrimental effects. The staff regularly swept the neighborhood for needles and closed off the entrance on San Leandro to prevent clients from loitering in front of the houses across the street, he said. Clients entered at the back of the building, facing the railroad tracks.

But concerned that someone might pour gasoline through Casa Segura’s mail slot and set a fire, the center’s staff asked Catchpool to permanently close it, which he did. Three months later, the center burned anyway. It had been in its new home just eight months.

A week after the fire, Casa Segura pitched tents in the parking lot. The staff was determined to continue providing services, however skeletal. But the organization, which lost 10 of its 15 employees in the fire’s aftermath, was devastated. “People thought, ‘If they’re willing to firebomb us, what’s next?'” co-director Joy Rutger recalled. Needle collection fell, visits to the wound and abscess clinic dropped, and the on-the-street-effort to educate and reach drug users plummeted. By the end of the October, even the tents folded up. The staff thought that it could not operate safely or effectively out of a parking lot.

Slowly, Casa Segura has begun to rebuild. Recently, it hired five new staff members. And after years of searching for a permanent home, the center finally made plans to leave Fruitvale. In mid-December, Casa Segura closed escrow on a building in East Oakland that it hopes to move into by March 1. East Oakland City Councilman Moses Mayne welcomed the drop-in center into his district. The new clients, like Mayne’s constituents, will be predominantly black.

“We are thrilled to have a new space,” Catchpool said. “When we first went to the building, Joy pointed to the ground and said ‘Oh! A crack pipe!’ and I said ‘Hey! A syringe top!’ and we looked at each and knew this was a good spot.”

But pushing the exchange out of Fruitvale won’t solve that area’s drug problem. Supporters of needle-exchange programs note that they generally serve addicts who live within a twenty-block radius. Since 1998, Catchpool said Casa Segura has kept anonymous logs recording the zip code, age, and number of needles exchanged by each client. The logs reveal that most clients come from the immediate surrounding area. Of the 40 who came through the Fruitvale exchange before 7 p.m. one recent night, 37 reported Fruitvale area zip codes. Two were from Hayward. One was from San Jose.

De La Fuente doubts the veracity of the logs. “If I am a drug addict, and I don’t want the police to get my record, do you think I’m going to give my right zip code?” He and other opponents charge that while some of those who frequent the needle exchange were locals, the facility actually was a magnet for addicts from all over the Bay Area. “People were coming in from AC Transit and BART from all over to exchange needles.” But Black disagrees, noting that addicts often aren’t together enough to travel very far. “If you’re a drug addict, you’re consumed with getting enough money to get enough dope so you don’t get sick,” she said.

Casa Segura still plans to bring at least its mobile exchange into Fruitvale once a week for two hours to provide clean needles, wound and abscess care, HIV testing, and other services. “We feel like they don’t want us there at all, but we are authorized by the county and the state of emergency to provide these services, and that’s exactly what we will continue to do,” Catchpool said.

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