2011: Interviews about Denver's Future with Patricia Calhoun, Daniel Brogan and Tamara Door

By Tim Covi

Photography by Ross Evertson

 

PATRICIA CALHOUN:



What do you think will really define Denver—what are the important issues people need to be thinking about—in 2011?

Money. I mean, the budget cuts will continue to be really critical. And in a city that really works fairly well, that’s gonna mean we might have to pay for some services we haven’t paid for before. Or get rid of some services. So that’s going to be a big issue for people—will streets be swept less often than they have been? Will parks be cleaned up less often than they have been? Will people have to start paying for trash? And I know there [were] some ideas floated that you would have to pay for recycling. So, on one level I think people will get very concerned about that. And then statewide, the cuts to education are going to be huge.

 

Do you think that’s going to define the incoming mayoral candidacy at all?

Well it should. That and I would say police issues should be the big issues people are really talking about, but you don’t know which are the ones that are going to catch fire with voters yet.

 

Talk to me a little bit about police issues. Last year was no exception. There’s always some police scandal in Denver.

The ratio of police beatings and complaints about police beatings is higher per capita in Denver than in any other city in the country. This is for complaints. So that might mean that people in Denver are just more content; they feel more secure complaining than in other cities. So maybe our cops aren’t bad; maybe it’s just our citizens are more active. But certainly we’ve got a lot of outstanding complaints about brutality that haven’t been dealt with. And interestingly Bill Vidal says he wants to deal with them before he leaves office…he’s got 6 months and he’s not running again. So, that’ll I think be one of the most interesting stories—to watch what he can do in six months.

 

Let’s talk about the nayoral race. It’s definitely going to be a defining aspect of the coming year. There are thirteen people on the ticket. Having seen several races in Denver, is this significantly different than past mayoral races?  

We’ve had close to this many [candidates] before. I mean when you think about Hickenlooper, there were at least seven fairly strong, viable candidates. Or big enough to be on panels that year. The year Peña was elected it was probably as many. So, it’s the same for a decade when there haven’t been a lot of openings. I don’t see this one catching fire yet, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we still see another candidate come forward.

I do think you’re right, that the mayoral race in some ways will be really defining. What was interesting is that, eight years ago I got a briefing from old time political pundits and they’re like,  “Okay this is a confidential briefing, but here’s how we see the mayor’s race going, and Ari Zavaras is clearly the leader.” And I said, you know, you’re crazy if you don’t think Hickenlooper’s gonna win. That is Denver today. You know? And no one had noticed, in the old guard, that that’s what Denver is now. It is these entrepreneurs. It is people like John Hickenlooper. Now that’s what it was eight years ago. What is it gonna be now? Is it what Michael Hancock represents, or Doug Linkhart? I don’t have a feel yet for it. That’s also why I think somebody else might still jump in.

 

Do you think that Hickenlooper is leaving much of a different legacy to whoever takes over office next, relative to mayors before him? People really appreciated him in office.

They appreciated how fun he was. Did he do a better job say than Federico Peña? I don’t think so. So I mean, Federico Peña really changed the way this city looked and in a lot of ways hasn’t gotten the credit for how people really looked at a more modern city and revisited and re-thought about design and how important urban planning was going to be. So, I think Hickenlooper, in the sense of trying to run it more like a business than a government—people will remember that, but city employees I think will tell you they’re pretty happy Hickenlooper’s gone. A lot of them. I think Hickenlooper did a far better job than anyone thought, but more than anything else he made the city feel good about itself. And that’s good.

 

Denver, even through the recession, has been developing really rapidly. What do you think the priorities should be for development in the city in 2011?

Well certainly you want to be sure you’ve got some infill, so that you don’t have a lot of empty shells. And I think that’s going to be part of the problem—that places that were built [and] weren’t done by really great developers, which could be falling apart fairly quickly…You don’t want to those turning into slums.

 

Do you have things in mind as you’re talking about this?

Oh yeah. There are some projects right along the Platte—there are apartments now that, you know, would never have been allowed to be built probably in the last ten years. They were built maybe a dozen years ago. And I’ve heard nothing but complaints about that. So that’ll be interesting because now it’s such a prime piece of real estate. But everyone who lives there just says it’s a mess.

 

In 2011 who are the rising stars?

You can read about it in our issue…February 17th. We’ve got this MasterMind program. We’re working on that right now for the issue of the 17th, so I don’t want to give those people away!

 

The MasterMind Awards focuses on the arts community. Denver is in this transition between a city that is looked at as becoming more sophisticated art-wise, but it’s not quite there yet. Can you reflect on that at all and where you see it going?

Well, part of it is, a city has to maintain (unless you’re New York or Los Angeles or some international destination), you have to be able to sustain your own artists. You’re not going to have people coming—huge numbers of people coming for tourism to see Denver shows. It’s just not going to happen. People in the region might, because geographically we’re still fairly isolated, but it’s our own fault if we aren’t supporting the local visual arts enough. I mean, we are the ones who have to support it. We can’t count on other people coming in.

I actually think in some ways the local visual arts scene isn’t as strong as it was years ago. And partly it’s because there aren’t as many co-ops as there were. I mean co-ops were just huge 30 years ago here. It’s getting a little better.

 

Interesting. Most people talk up the gallery strips and the new Rhino district.

Right. Some of them are coming along really nicely. But you know, Navajo, that area was hoppin’ 30 years ago. And one of the other problems with booming economies is you lose some of those strips. You know the artists are almost always the precursors of what will become the next hot part of town, and then they have to go. Now there’s enough area in Rhino that they should be able to stay there for a pretty long time...

I love the local art scene. But in some ways the institutions maybe aren’t as exciting as they were 30 years ago. … On some of the gallery scene, the underground gallery scene has always been great here. And I think that will always be the strongest part of Denver’s art scene. Because it’s the next level up of galleries that don’t seem to be able to make it.

 

There isn’t the educational support for really viable artists either. So the mid-level-high-end galleries don’t have a lot of meat to work with.

Right. And especially now if people aren’t getting art educations. We probably have now the first group of people who’ve gotten out of school and have had no art education at all, and do they even think to go out and buy stuff? And with the lower, the underground galleries, you can make it kind of cultural and hip and they think they’re gonna do it, but it’s moving up to the next level [where it becomes difficult].

 

DANIEL BROGAN:

 

What do you think will really define Denver—what are the important issues people need to be thinking about—in 2011?

Well obviously the economy continues to be huge. When I look at 5280’s business, when I look at our clients, when I’m just out talking to people in general, I think that we’re slowly getting to a point where there’s confidence creeping back into the system. There’s not that sense of panic that there was two years ago or even a year ago. And I think that’s key.

So, the economy, jobs—obviously that’s at the top of everybody’s list. I think directly related to that of course is the mayor’s race. And both as someone who watches politics and as someone who lives in the city, I think it’s gonna be a fascinating couple of months, you know? There are some really interesting candidates out there. …They’re all people who are qualified. And so, I think we have this opportunity to have a really intelligent discussion about what the future of this city [holds].

 

There is an interesting cross section of candidates. Who do you see as the major players in it right now? The people who are pretty serious out of those thirteen?

I think it’s a really crowded field at this point. And well, let me step back. First of all I do want to say, I’m disappointed that Walter Isenberg chose not to run. And that’s not to say that I think he would have won. That’s not to say that he would have been who I personally end up voting for. But I think he would have brought an interesting dimension to the conversation. You know I think John Hickenlooper showed that a businessman can bring certain things of value to the job. That’s not to say that career politicians can’t, but I think John brought some great things to the table. And I think Walter would have been in that mold.

Obviously anybody whose last name is Romer you can’t discount in this state. You know that’s just a given. And Chris is a really smart guy, works really hard, so he’s gonna be a force.

Michael Hancock has gotten off to an early, fast start and is raising money in ways that I don’t think people thought he was going to, so he’s definitely going to be a force.

James Mejia I think is somebody who has the potential to be a surprise candidate in all this. I mean, very well liked, very connected to—I need to come up with a good term for this, but—the family and children community. The mommy-bloggers and women that support the Colorado Coalition for the Children’s campaign. That’s a strong voting block. And he’s paid his dues in that world.

For better or worse, you know, politics even on a local level like this are still about money. And in such a crowded field, I think there’s going to have to be a lot of money spent to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately I don’t think a whole lot of it is going to be spent on magazine advertising (laughs).

 

You had mentioned that a businessperson brings an interesting angle to the race and to office. And considering where we are as a city—we’re poised for more huge growth. How do you think that plays into the race, and into office once someone takes it?

Well, I think that if you go back and you sort of look at the continuum of Peña, Webb, Hickenlooper, you know, it is this idea of imagine a great city, build a great city, and what John did I think is continue upon that. I think John was a big part of marketing the city. You know, promoting that idea. And that’s going to need to continue. We need to continue forward. But it’s hard to do that in this kind of economy. So I think, someone who can come in and find and eliminate waste, and is also going to look at things a little differently and is going to come up with different twists on how to do things…you know, business people tend to do better on that front.

 

Do you think that Hickenlooper has left a legacy that is any different from past mayors? Someone’s going to have to fill that role in a different way?

I mean I definitely see it as a continuum of the last three mayors. They were all not afraid to think big. You know? None of them were status quo mayors. Sometimes, during the Peña and Webb years we were dragged kicking and screaming with things like DIA and whatnot, but I think Denver’s become more accustomed to change. … It’s a whole different world. And the Union Station project’s only gonna be the next step in that. I mean, look where we are right now—15th and Wazee. Well five years ago Wazee was the western edge of downtown. Five years from now, it’s dead center. The whole town is changing and morphing because of these projects.

 

Considering how quickly we are developing and that that’s a major aspect of the city, what do you think the priorities should be for development in the city in 2011?

I think that as a city we’ve done well in developing the kind of big picture amenities that would make someone say, “Oh I want to move into the city.” Bike paths, cultural [fare], great restaurants, new library, Pepsi Center, Coors Field, all these big, big projects. I think now, and I hope this will be an issue in the mayor’s race, [there] are sort of twin issues that could scuttle all of this, and that’s education and safety. If the schools suck, families will stop moving here. And the ones who are already here will move away.

I think we have sort of a grace period going right now where, the families who are moving here are willing, to a certain extent, to be pioneers and to try to support something and try to pick something up, that we all admit is not what it should be, and bring it up. But, you know, there needs to be results and there needs to be results in a reasonable time frame or that patience will go away.

And [by] the same token, safety. t So, to me, those are the two elephants in the room that I hope these candidates address or get forced to address on the campaign.

 

Denver’s at a crossroads in the art world, where some people look at the city as having a tokenizing art scene that can’t be taken seriously, while others say there is a lot of sophistication coming in. What do you think about the arts in Denver in 2011?

I absolutely agree. … And, you know, I think we as a city, and I’ll be honest, we as a magazine, need to figure out some ways to help nurture that and push it along. Because I think you’re right. It is at that cusp, that tipping point between only a few people know about it and becoming something big that a lot of people can participate in and celebrate.

 

In terms of people, who do you see as the rising stars in Denver?

We’ll be revisiting [our top 50 edition] this year. I guess my short answer is: wait for that!

 

 

TAMARA DOOR:

 

What do you think will really define Denver in 2011—what are the important things people need to be thinking about?

There are some really key public infrastructure projects that are underway or are in the planning process. One being the 16th Street Mall. The community’s worked for a couple years now to create a plan. The plan is completed and now the key will be to identify funding sources.

The other exciting piece of public infrastructure that will be completed is 14th Street. That entire street starting at the Webb building will be redeveloped to become a true gateway street for downtown. It’s going to be beautiful. … New trees, wider sidewalks, better lighting. And all of that is important because, when the environment is attractive and conducive to pedestrians and inviting, it attracts businesses. So that goes to the next point. How do we continue to attract businesses to Denver as well as to downtown Denver?

 

Denver is very good at making these deliberate development plans and being conscious of the way we grow our city. What do you think are some of the challenges coming our way in the coming year or couple of years?

Funding even in the best of times is a challenge. But on the really large-scale public projects, for example on the 16th Street Mall, Federal funding is essential. So, as much as we have private investment through the Business Improvement District to help maintain the mall, as much as the city and RTD invest, it’s still going to take more than that.

FastTracks, for our community at large, is probably one of the most significant projects that we need to ensure comes to fruition.

 

Can you talk about that? What does that mean for the city of Denver if that doesn’t get completed?

Maybe less about what it means if it doesn’t come to fruition and more about what it does mean if it does come to fruition. … If you think about the volume of people that will be able to access the center city, because transit all comes into one place. But furthermore, as time goes on, we’re not just competing against other parts of the region for economic development in Denver, we’re competing nationally, we’re competing internationally. When you look at cities that are excelling and attracting all the growing businesses—a high quality, effective transit system is essential. It’s a key component for the future workforce, it’s a key component giving access to employees, and for us not to have that puts us at an extreme disadvantage.

 

The Union Station build out fits into this. Talk to me about that.

A really critical project for the future of the city is going to be the redevelopment of Union Station and that surrounding area, because it will attract more retail. It’ll be kind of the welcome mat for FastTracks as people arrive into the city. It will also attract more residents. It’s going to be mixed use so there’ll be a lot of variety brought into the area. And then we really need to look at what we’re doing with Union Station itself, the train station. We’re really fortunate to have such a cool historic station. And there are a lot of ideas on the table right now with what to do with it. So ideally, within the next 4-6 months there will be a plan and somebody identified to come in there and do the project.

 

What else will happen with that area within the next year?

You’ll continue to see development. We’ve already broken ground on a building there. IMA [Financial Group] will be building a new headquarters there. And then you’ll start seeing other development even grow around it. Because there’s the project itself, but then you’ll start seeing other buildings around it attract different types of tenants based on what’s happening there. So the benefit is exponential.

 

Obviously a big thing that’s going to be on the stage this year is the mayoral race. Who are you behind in this?

Well, I think right now there are about 13 candidates in the race. We are going through a pretty thorough process to vet the candidates. As an organization we don’t take a position on a candidate. However, we have a very clear 20-year plan for downtown. Over 3,000 people helped develop that plan. That plan was then adopted by city council. We have a pretty good framework to talk to candidates to see: are you in line with the plan that the community and the stakeholders developed and city council adopted?

 

Do you think that Hickenlooper will be difficult to replace? He’s been so supportive of the business community.

You know I honestly believe that there’s always the right leader for the right time. And there’s no question that Governor Hickenlooper as mayor was absolutely the right person for the time period in which he served. And I think now the key is to look out in the future and see what we need based on what the circumstances are going forward. I mean, he was a tremendous ally. We worked very closely with him; he represented the city, he gave it energy, he gave it vision, and he was collaborative. So all of those traits need to carry over to the next mayor. At the same time we need to think about what we need from the next mayor.

 

What do you see as the big budgetary issues that are going to be a struggle in the city this year?

From a budget standpoint, I don’t know that the administration’s going to need to come in and say, “Okay now we’re going to cut here and now we’re going to cut here.” So much of that hard work has already been done.

Our future lies in growing revenue. And I think the way that we need to look at growing revenue is to look at growing businesses. Not necessarily by charging businesses more. That doesn’t work. It has diminishing returns.

 

Do you see any rising stars, either in the business community or at large in 2011?

John Schlagel. You guys would really like John. [He] owns Snooze. And John is also chairing, on behalf of the [DDP], the Arapahoe Square planning process. John has proven himself as a leader in his own right—not just in his respective business and in his industry. He’s led some innovative initiatives. He’s really worked to hire more disadvantaged people into Snooze and help them get back on their feet. He’s really been a focal point in that part of the community [in Arapahoe Square], because you know right there is where all the social service providers are, and he embraces the opportunity to make change. He’s been busy getting his business going, and now he’s really starting to emerge as somebody that will make a real difference in the community over the long haul. •

 

The Drug Dilemma

By Katie Hyslop

Additional Reporting By Tim Covi

Drug Dilemma
Hundreds of doctors, politicians, researchers and frontline workers got together with drug users and ex-users in Austin, Texas, in November 2010 to openly talk about drug use. But unlike the popular trend in drug-policy conversations, which for decades focused on the War on Drugs, the eighth National Harm Reduction Conference featured discussions on opening needle exchanges, legalizing and regulating the drug trade, and overdose prevention methods. 

Hosted by the Harm Reduction Coalition, the conference was an opportunity to discuss what has been a very controversial topic in some communities across the United States—the idea of harm reduction. Differing from most law enforcement strategies, harm reduction doesn’t seek to take drugs off the market, but rather to reduce the negative impact of drugs on communities by making them safer. So where a dirty needle might cause the spread of HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, a needle exchange program would allow users to come in, exchange dirty needles for clean ones, and potentially prevent the spread of disease, a serious public health hazard.

According to Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, “What we do in (the United States) is make drugs as unsafe as they possibly can be, and we do that through laws, which means that, if you get busted with drugs, you go to prison for a long time. And that’s designed as a deterrent to make people stop using drugs, which obviously it isn’t.”

Drug arrests increased from 580,900 in 1980 to 1,889,810 arrests in 2006, according to data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports. Since 2006, the number of arrests has slightly declined, totaling 1,663,582 in 2009.

Supported by the United Nations and over 93 countries worldwide, harm reduction remains controversial. While over half of the 158 countries where drug use has been reported say they support harm reduction, only 82 countries have needle exchanges, just 73 provide opiate substitution therapies like methadone, and only eight countries have safe drug consumption facilities. There are only two safe consumption facilities in North America, both in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

In the United States, while 35 states had adopted needle exchange programs as a part of harm reduction policies, Colorado steadfastly rejected the idea—until last year. After more than a decade of trying, members of the harm reduction effort in Denver celebrated passage of a law legalizing a syringe exchange. But eight months since its passage, no legal syringe exchange exists, and some complicated questions about the details of the law have everyone wondering how the plan will actually be implemented. 

 

Rocky Mountain High

The first needle exchange program in the U.S. opened in 1987 in New Haven, Connecticut, but it was only last year that a ban was lifted on federal funding for needle exchanges, introduced by former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in 1989. The government has yet to provide any guidelines for funding the programs, however, and many states are unwilling to move forward without knowing if their programs will receive funding.

Colorado became the 36th state to gain a legal syringe exchange program this year, but rather than a statewide mandate, each county’s public health board has to opt into the program; only after that can an organization apply to become a needle exchange within that county.

Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver, said there is a lot of support for a needle exchange program among Denver’s Public Health Department. “Denver’s definitely opting in,” Raville said, “Then there’s a referral process of trying to figure out who’s going to be the syringe exchange. Either is it going to be the Public Health County, or are they going to subcontract with a nonprofit.”

Widely supported by Public Health officials, the controversy of needle exchanges often appears to be more a matter of public perception. In Colorado, passage of SB 189, the legislation permitting legal syringe exchanges, was strongly backed by the Colorado Department of Public Health. But when it came to crafting the legislation, most politicians didn’t want to appear soft on crime. Language was put in the bill ensuring that being caught with a syringe would still be illegal for users. “Right before it was introduced we had seen a sketching of the bill and everyone was trying to push for [complete exemption],” Raville said, “but the lobbyists and the [politicians] were feeling like this was going to make it palatable.” The final bill states that only staff and volunteers of a needle exchange program would be exempted from paraphernalia laws. “It’s still a class II misdemeanor—the paraphernalia law is still an issue,” Raville said.

Denver has an illegal needle exchange program, however, that’s been running since 2007. Previous exchanges operated in the late 1990s and in 2003-2004, but never lasted long.

According to Andrew—one of the founding members of the Underground Syringe Exchange of Denver, who requested his last name be withheld—from a political perspective legalizing a needle-exchange could seem like an invitation to do drugs.

“Everybody kind of assumes that if you’re going to give syringes to the users on the street that people are gonna be lining up around the corner. It’s kind of like this, don’t put it in my neighborhood, don’t give it to my community, because if you don’t give them the syringes they’re not going to inject drugs. It’s not true. And it’s also not true that more people are going to use because they have easier access to clean syringes.”

Senator Pat Steadman reinforces this claim. In an April blog post about SB 189, Steadman points out that Boulder County has effectively had an accepted public syringe exchange since 1992. “The Boulder County Health Department struck a deal with the district attorney for their jurisdiction,” he wrote. “An agreement not to prosecute was carefully negotiated, and it has been in place ever since.  Boulder County runs a syringe exchange program that by all accounts has been successful in preventing HIV and hepatitis B and C infections.  … There is no indication that drug use or crime has increased in Boulder County as a result of this program, and the local law enforcement agencies are supportive of its continuation,” he concluded.

Critics point out that maintaining a policy of prosecuting for paraphernalia can detract from the effectiveness of the needle exchange. Needle drug users often exchange needles for others they use with; so one person might bring in several syringes. “If you’re coming in with 100 used, they’re going to catch you for the residue in there as well,” Raville said, which can create a strong deterrent to coming in at all.

Andrew added that from his experience there’s a big risk because of the volume of needles people carry when they do secondary exchanges, where they take dirty needles for friends and exchange them. “We average probably, on one day of exchanging, seeing 5-10 people and exchanging 200-800 syringes in a three-hour block,” he says.

Though Denver has opted into the new needle exchange law, a legal exchange program might be a while in the works. In addition to ensuring that users can participate safely without fear of being arrested, a few other aspects of the legislation need to be worked through before an effective exchange can be created.

Previous attempts to set up a syringe exchange are actually creating unexpected roadblocks. A Denver city ordinance on syringe exchanges was actually passed in the late 1990s. Though no exchange was ever established, the ordinance remains and restricts the number of needle exchange sites to a maximum of three; it also states that they must be one-for-one exchanges, and that they cannot be within 50 feet of a dwelling. With an estimated 10,000-15,000 IV drug users in the city according to the Harm Reduction Action Center’s estimates, Andrew says the ordinance needs to be changed in order for the program to be effective.

“Some of these items in this city ordinance are actually more restrictive barriers than the senate bill [189] was itself,” Andrew said, “I think back then they were trying to find some way to weasel their way into the door. And unfortunately here 10-12 years down the road it’s actually inhibiting our progress.”

Andrew pointed to World Health Organization guidelines to demonstrate why these restrictions might only ensure failure. “If you look at the World Health Organization…guidelines on starting a syringe exchange programs, one of the most significant pieces that I find in there is it says: [the] best placement for a syringe exchange is in a neighborhood where injection drug users live and have easy access to this place.”

Andrew said he thinks it would be counterproductive to start an exchange that wouldn’t meet the community’s needs. “The fact that there’s still nothing happening is why we still have an underground syringe exchange,” he said, “And it’s going to continue until we have an effective exchange running in Denver.”

Elsewhere in the United States and Canada, communities are struggling with decisions about various aspects of harm reduction, highlighting areas of the topic that Denver can learn from.

 

No needles in Nashville

Nashville, Tennessee, runs harm-reduction programs on both sides of the law. The city’s Annual Vulnerability Index, released in October, interviewed 885 homeless people (out of an estimated 4,000) and found 64 percent abused substances at some point, while 44 percent had received addiction treatment.

There was a tolerated needle-exchange program in 2001-2002, recognized by City Hall as well as the local law enforcement, but for reasons unknown the exchange died off, and now clean needle distribution has gone underground. Legal harm reduction comes in the form of mobile outreach vans run by groups such as Street Works, which offers free HIV testing, condoms and lubricant to drug users, sex workers, and the homeless.

Leslie Davis, outreach team leader for Street Works, has been doing harm reduction work with the organization for 10 years. Davis says needle use is actually down in the city, likely because the grade of heroin has improved and can be snorted or smoked instead, which decreases the chance of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Davis wants more than clean supplies to pass out, though. He also wants to see drug use decriminalized and treatment focused on lifting users out of poverty, as well as counseling for the personal traumas that led them to drug use in the first place.

“There are success stories around. At Street Works, we have several success stories … people celebrating five or six years clean. … (But) the odds of turning your life around are not good,” he said. “I’ve seen ‘em die in this town and never get clean.”

 

Conservative Cincinnati

Like Tennessee, needle exchanges are illegal in Ohio unless they are sanctioned by a city’s health commissioner under an emergency order. Such an order was issued in Cleveland, where a needle exchange has been operating since 1995. At that time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of the city’s new HIV infections were among IV drug users. Today that number has dropped to 3.4 percent.

But it’s a different story in Cincinnati, where it’s a crime to possess a dirty syringe, regardless of whether you’re the user or a volunteer at a needle exchange. While both the city’s mayor and health commissioner say they support a needle exchange in theory, STOP AIDS Cincinnati, a local AIDS prevention and support group that operates on a harm-reduction model, must make the case for a needle exchange to the entire city council and health board.

“Cincinnati is notably a fairly conservative city, and we have some groups in the city who kind of coalesce around what they identify as being family and community values, that are a little further out there than most of the community. But they do a good job rallying their forces,” said Amy McMahon, CEO of STOP AIDS.

HIV/AIDS levels among IV drug users in the city are 5 to 10 percent for HIV, while hepatitis C is much higher, at 35-38 percent. It’s numbers like these that drive McMahon to push for needle exchange on top of the condoms, lube, and testing STOP AIDS Cincinnati already supplies.

 

Methadone not covered in Midwest state

Needle exchanges are legal in Chicago, Illinois, but since the federal ban has been repealed, Dan Biggs hasn’t seen a flood of government money coming in. Instead, the Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA), of which Biggs is founder and director, is funded by the Chicago Health Department and the Illinois Department of Health, and has become one of the largest harm-reduction outreach programs in the country.

CRA provides the clean rigs and condoms common to harm reduction in other parts of the world, also offering free vaccines for hepatitis A, B, and C, as well as the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia, through their mobile van and their office. But due to a federal law that limits distribution of opiate substitutes to specialized clinics, CRA can’t provide methadone or buprenorphine to marginalized drug users.

“[Treatment is] not available to most people who want it. …Right now I can’t get you into methadone treatment unless you have good resources—money. Most insurance don’t pay for it. [It costs] $60 a week,” Biggs said. “But I can get you a cell and court date for $50,000 a year. What kind of insanity is that?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are 60,000 to 90,000 injection drug users in Chicago, but only 7,000 to 8,000 use CRA’s services per year. Biggs says some areas of the city see no services at all, particularly the southwest side, which has high rates of injection drug use.

 

“Insite” into harm reduction

“We were coming to work and people were overdosing and people were dying, and at its height it seemed like it was happening every day, and it just seemed unnecessary. If people were dead, there was no chance of detoxing,” said Mark Townshead, executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, a nonprofit supportive housing organization in Vancouver, British Columbia. Portland Hotel Society runs Insite, one of the two safe consumption sites in North America, open since 2003.

“[Insite opened] because lots of people worked hard to make it happen, including the mayor—all the different mayors—and [Premier] Gordon Campbell.”

Insite is located in the city’s Downtown Eastside, often referred to as Canada’s poorest postal code. Injection drug users in that area have a mortality rate 14 times higher than the rest of B.C., with an HIV rate of 4 in 10, and a hepatitis C rate of 9 out of 10 users.

The facility consists of 12 safe-injection booths, monitored by nurses, where clients are provided with clean syringes, cookers, filters, water, and tourniquets, as well as education on safe injection practices that limit the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. Injection drug use is illegal in Canada, but Insite applied for and received an exemption from the federal government to run the site, though the current government is trying to shut the facility down.

There are approximately 12,000 registered clients at Insite, but in 2009 only 5,447 used the clinic, with an average 491 injections per day. Four-hundred-and-eighty-four overdose interventions were performed that year, with no fatalities—in fact, no one has died at Insite since it opened, but the long lines mean some people walk away without injecting.

Because the local health authority funds it, Insite acts as a gateway to other medical services, such as treating infections and diseases and referrals to mental health treatment. In its second year alone, Insite made 2,000 referrals to outside services, including 800 to addiction counseling. There is also a detox center called Onsite located upstairs if people want to quit.

The Canadian federal government opposes safe injection on moral and ethical grounds, and this stance has prevented other Canadian cities from opening their own safe injection sites, including B.C.’s capital city, Victoria. While drug users in Vancouver have access to needle exchanges all over the city, Victoria lost its only fixed-site needle exchange in 2008 after complaints about noise, crime, garbage and human waste in the area.

The Vancouver Island Health Authority secured another location for the needle exchange in March 2008, but complaints from neighbors resulted in an indefinite hold on a fixed-site needle exchange. Volunteers drive mobile exchange vans in the city, but they have also been banned from that neighborhood, commonly referred to as the “no-go zone.”

 

Support for Harm Reduction

Efforts for harm-reduction services, particularly needle exchanges and safe consumption sites, has gained ground in both Canada and the United States, but proponents still face hurdles.

Despite being the subject of 30 peer-reviewed studies by the B.C. Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, which showed a significant reduction in public injections and in HIV and hepatitis C infections, as well as an increase in the number of users seeking treatment, Insite is in danger of being shut down by the Canadian federal government. After two separate cases before the B.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, which ruled in Insite’s favor, the decision now lies with the Supreme Court of Canada.

“The Canadian Medical Association, normally a very conservative body, has stepped in twice to defend Insite, and they will be intervening in the Supreme Court to say, ‘This is ridiculous. (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper needs to give his head a shake,’” Townshead said. “You can find an opinion from a fool, but ultimately the information is in and the evidence is utterly clear.”

It’s not just the government that stands in the way, however. Members of the public who don’t experience the realities of drug addiction in their lives often do not understand the reason for harm-reduction services, particularly because illicit drug use is illegal in North America.

“We live in a society that doesn’t often turn its thoughts to those who are least among us,” said Andrew of the Underground Syringe Exchange of Denver. “And injection drug use affects a very small portion of the population, so, since it’s not on their radar, and it’s one of those icky topics that they’re not interested in delving into because it challenges their moral boundaries, they just kind of look at it and say, ‘You know, let ‘em die off,’ basically.”

Clear, of the Harm Reduction Coalition, believes it is the politicians, not the public, who are holding back harm reduction, and with the retraction of funding bans on needle exchanges in the United States and the support of safe injection sites by the provincial courts of British Columbia, the future of harm reduction in North America is one of growth.

“The funny thing is that topic opinion polls, the few that exist, have always been pretty consistent that the general public actually supports them. It’s not overwhelming, but they are pretty consistent. It’s something like 55 to 45, or 52 to 48 in favor of syringe exchange programs,” Clear said.

“And I think that the changing in the legislation around the federal ban on the funding on needle exchange means that some of those programs that have been around for a while, but have not strictly been legal, will be tolerated a lot more by their local health departments. Hopefully we can build upon that, and then they can get funding and be legal and everything.” •

Hickenlooper on Homelessness

 

Mayor John Hickenlooper discusses Denver's 10-year plan

By Tim Covi

Photography by Ross Evertson

From an English major in undergrad, to a master’s student in Geology, from a young entrepreneur in a derelict part of 1980’s Denver, to the Mayor’s office, John Hickenlooper’s path to politics has been anything but direct. In office, he has led this city through huge changes and growth. He’s pushed for greater accountability in sustainable development, in green house gas emissions, and in police department reforms.

As he embarks on the Governor’s race, we sat down with him to discuss one of the defining aspects of his tenure in the Mayor’s office, Denver’s Road Home, our 10-year plan to end homelessness. 

Five years into this plan, Denver’s Road Home has accomplished several of its numeric goals in terms of providing services, though the homeless population has grown. Though well short of ending homelessness among either chronic or temporary populations, DRH has managed to bring more than 1,500 housing units online for the homeless, and has made homelessness a central aspect of community action in Denver. 

The recession triggered a spike in Denver’s homeless population, which grew from 2,628 in 2005 to 6,659 in 2009, or almost a 61 percent increase. Much more needs to be done to solve the problem. Without the centralized services created by DRH, the coordination of faith based efforts to support the homeless and the infusion of money generated by DRH, this population will balloon more. 

Mr. Hickenlooper talks to us about how DRH started, what motivated him to throw his weight behind it, where we need to go from here, and how successful aspects of DRH could be applied across the state.

 

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Interview: Cul-de-sac communes

Published March 2010 Vol. 14 Issue 3

by Tim Covi

Since the beginning of 2009 a new term, the cul-de-sac commune, has created an almost monthly buzz in Internet chat rooms, newsrooms and forums. Even without investigating much further, it’s easy to see why. It’s a combination of dipolar things. The cul-de-sac is the quiet compound of the suburban soccer mom. You think of easy Sunday mornings where the only sounds are a few finches and the gurgled zip of a freshly oiled bike chain as a neighborhood kid peddles by.

The commune, by contrast, is the cluster of stilted structures slapped up like a Tim Burton daydream on a remote desert horizon. It’s full of poorly washed hippies with radical ideas about free love, or at the very least, visions of utopia.

But for Stephanie Smith, the ideas of a commune and a suburban cul-de-sac don’t have to be at odds. They can even be right at home together in a Denver suburb.

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Art Feature: Lens on the city

Published March 2010 Vol. 14 Issue 3

text by Tim Covi
photots by Zoriah Miller

When it comes to growth and design, Denver seems to be at the cutting edge of new models of development, embracing terms of the times like “new urbanism,” “sustainable” and “green.” Communities like Lowry, Landmark, Stapleton and Belmar have spotted the landscape on the outer ring of the city over the past 8 years, and newer re-developments like the Gates Rubber Plant project and the planned build out behind Union Station are under way within the shadow of downtown.

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Local Buzz: Jazz & Gentry

Published March 2010 Vol. 14 Issue 3

Will Denver Have its own Harlem Renaissance?

written by Tim Covi
reporting by Dwayne Pride
photography by Adrian Diubaldo

Standing at the corner of Welton and Washington Streets, if you look hard enough you might still see throngs of people coiling around the sides of the Rossonian Hotel. Young men standing under tipped fedoras and women in cocktail dresses and heels lined up to hear some of the best jazz the country has to offer. You’d have to look hard, mind you. Past the dusty, lightly sootsoiled brick, past the 1993 renovations, around the light rail that sidles up to the hotel’s flank and comes to a slow, furtive stop at the traffic light before rushing off down Welton with its payload. You’d need to look beyond the empty shell being remodeled, well into history. Because for several years, this corner has been a husk of what it was.

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News Briefs: Federal government extends $30 million to staunch Section 8 bleeding

Published September 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 8

by Joanne Zuhl
additional reporting by Tim Covi

After housing authorities across the country reported massive shortfalls in funding, the federal government announced in August that it would provide an additional $30 million to people on Section 8 housing assistance.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, funds the Section 8 program through local housing authorities, like the Denver Housing Authority. People eligible for Section 8 housing enter into a lottery for vouchers. If selected, they then find an apartment with a participating landlord.

According to news reports and testimony before Congress, authorities across the country were saying they could no longer afford to provide housing assistance to tenants as the economic downturn overburdened their resources.

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Feature: A Bump in the Road Home

Denver’s 10-year plan has accomplished a lot since it started in 2005, but can it keep up with growing poverty?

by Tim Covi
photographs by Ross Evertson

Looking at him now, you can still vaguely make out the silhouette of Bruce Wright’s youth. He sits in a dimly lit chair in his homey ground floor apartment, shadows rolling across the walls from passing cars. Barrel chest, heavy hands, his history of work and wander is etched subtly into him like a living tattoo. A hoarse cough shakes his body for a minute and pulls us out of his story about the past. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He sips water from an old plastic coke bottle and regains composure. His eyes are meek and honest as he takes us back to Arizona, California, Oregon.

  Bruce Wright photo by Ross Evertson "I was living off and on in hotel rooms, just kickin' it around wherever I could, you know. I spent quite some time sown at 11th Avenue Hotel. I started out at $10 a night just for the bed."

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