SEATTLE, Wash. (KOIN) – A life is a life worth saving, even when addiction consumes that life.
Lonnie Stevenson’s life began in Seattle’s Mt. Baker neighborhood. His childhood playground overlooked Lake Washington. He was surrounded by good influences in his life. His uncles, who he was close to, were educators. School usually kept Lonnie interested. He made it through one year of college before deciding he wanted to enter the workforce.
“I’m a product of the 70s, you know,” Stevenson said, as he spoke to KOIN 6 News from an office building in downtown Seattle. “It was just a lot of fun.”
As he grew up, Stevenson held various jobs. He started off as a plumber and then found success as a retail specialist at Nordstrom.
When life threw Stevenson a curve ball, he wasn’t ready.
He remembers getting the news of his mom’s terminal illness.
“That’s what kind of set me off,” Stevenson said.
It tore him up both physically and mentally.
“I had bottomed out,” he said. “I was really hurt and depressed about it.”
He began to drink, but the alcohol didn’t kill the pain. He grew tired of the hangovers and turned to heroin.
“It was an escape,” he said.
The drugs and alcohol cost Stevenson his job, then his home.
He found himself on the streets of Seattle without a place to stay. He was in survival mode.
His use of heroin started out innocent enough, but as time went on, it turned from use to abuse. Using every 3 days turned into using every day.
Stevenson was always chasing his next high.
“I use to say that the heroin kept me sick, and the crack kept me broke,” Lonnie said.
With time, his criminal record grew: obstruction, property destruction, unlawful use of a vehicle permit, reckless driving, menacing and criminal trespassing. Those were the small, misdemeanor crimes. His felony rap sheet included burglary, bail jumping and drug crimes.
On paper, Stevenson was a typical street criminal.
“I was homeless,” he said. “I was strung out.”
The help Lonnie so desperately needed would come from a program called “LEAD.” It stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.
Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD)
LEAD was first developed in 2011 by a group of people in Seattle. The program “was the result of an unprecedented collaboration between police, prosecutors, civil rights advocates, public defenders, political leaders, mental health and drug treatment providers, housing providers and other service agencies and business and neighborhood leaders,” according to Multnomah County spokesperson Jessica Morkert-Shibley.
LEAD was developed in Seattle to address low-level drug offenses and prostitution crimes.
The program allows police to redirect low-level offenders involved in drug activity to intensive case management tailored to the individual’s needs instead of jail and prosecution.
‘I was sick of myself’
Stevenson had first heard about the LEAD program while he was living on the streets.
“I had just reached a point in my life where I was tired of myself. I was sick of myself,” he said.
The intervention that saved Stevenson’s life came one night while he was sleeping outside the historic Paramount Theater in downtown.
A well-known police officer in Seattle referred Lonnie to LEAD.
“I knew I was better than just being a drug addict,” he said. “I knew I was better than being a junkie.”
In 2014, Stevenson entered the program. While his mind was ready to put down the heroin syringe, his body wasn’t. The withdrawal symptoms took a toll. He struggled.
To find success with the LEAD program, Stevenson created an accountability circle, surrounding himself with people who cared about him and who wanted to see him get his life back on track.
“I often had to look in the mirror and remind myself that I was worth every bit of effort,” he said.
With time, Stevenson eventually reached the end of his addicted-self and found hope.
“I am able to care about myself again, and that’s like a new beginning and a new awaking,” Stevenson said. “It really is. I mean, I’m not that piece of crap. You know, I’m a life worth saving.”
Watching how Seattle does it
Recently, KOIN 6 News traveled to Seattle and spent the day with the Neighborhood Corrections Initiative (NCI) to see how Seattle’s LEAD program works.
NCI is comprised of Seattle police, LEAD outreach workers and the Washington Department of Corrections.
Officer Chad Winfrey, who is assigned to the Washington Department of Corrections, said the goal of NCI is to contact as many low-level drug users as possible.
He said by getting low-level drug dealers into treatment programs, such as LEAD, the supply source for drug dealers dries up, and overall crime beings to drop.
“If you’re able to address the smaller things, and do a good job at that, and hold people accountable, it really keeps it from festering into bigger problems,” Winfrey said.
Law enforcement in King County, Washington continues to battle the drug epidemic. For years, crack cocaine has been the drug of choice, along with heroin, but lately, police are seeing meth starting to make a comeback in downtown.
“It can be very visible for the rest of the city to see sometimes, and that’s something we’re always trying to combat,” Winfrey said. “People shouldn’t have to see that.”
The NCI team spends a lot of time focusing attention on the Pike-Pine corridor in Seattle.
Pike Street and Pine Street are two one-way streets that cut through downtown Seattle and can be compared to West Burnside and SW Alder Street in Portland in terms of their makeup of commercial and residential buildings.
“LEAD actually focuses on the person and puts the person in the petri dish, puts them under the microscope. You’re really able to address their issues,” Winfrey said.
As KOIN 6 News rode along with the NCI team, the officers stopped to talk with individuals struggling with addiction or who are facing homelessness.
Inside the van was Mikel Kowalcyk , a LEAD case manager. From the back seat, she spotted a LEAD client she needed to talk with.
“Can we turn around,” she shouted from the back seat to Seattle Police Officer Felix Reyes, who drove the van.
All eyes searched for the man Kowalcyk needed to talk with.
Seattle Police Officer Victor Maes used his binoculars to search the streets.
Eventually the man was spotted. Kowalcyk jumped out of the barely parked van and ran after the man.
They talked in the Seattle rain about the man’s upcoming eligibility for housing.
“So we wanna make sure he’s coming in regularly so that when his housing comes up, he can get right in, Kowalcyk said.
As the morning wore down, the NCI team ran into Jessica Frasier and her boyfriend Sebastian Parnell not too far from Safeco Field.
“We’ve been homeless for 3 years,” Frasier said.
Both are currently enrolled in LEAD after being enrolled at the behest of a Seattle police officer.
For Frasier and Parnell, their drug of choice used to be heroin.
It almost killed Parnell. He had used so much that his veins had collapsed. He was unable to hit himself with a needle, so one morning Frasier injected a needle filled with heroin into Parnell’s neck.
“I don’t really remember that much of anything,” Parnell said.
Watching her boyfriend suddenly convulsing on the streets of Seattle terrified Frasier.
“He almost died,” Frasier said.
“That really made us think about things,” she said.
Since that incident, the couple has been clean for 3 months. They are using methadone, which reduces cravings for people addicting to heroin.
“I will never inject someone with heroin again,” Frasier said. “Not after what we went through.”
LEAD was able to put Frasier and Parnell into a motel so they would have a space to sleep. The program is currently helping them find permanent housing.
Frasier described the LEAD program as “family.”
“To know that you have somebody that’s on your side, that’s working for you and really supporting you is amazing,” she said.
Without the help of LEAD, Parnell and Frasier both admit their future would have been bleak.
With LEAD, Parnell said, “You get to sit down and breathe. It’s just like, ‘Oh, finally.’”
Launching LEAD in Multnomah County
On February 27, LEAD will be implemented in Multnomah County, specifically within the Old Town/Chinatown District and near the Lloyd District.
Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill said his office worked closely with King County, Washington Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg to determine which neighborhoods in Portland would the best fit to launch LEAD in.
Officials were quick to focus on the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood of Southwest Portland and the Lloyd District in Northeast Portland.
“We’re seeing people, individuals in our community, who are impacted by drug addition, whether that’s cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine or other combinations of controlled substances,” Underhill said.
Underhill’s hope is that LEAD reduces future criminal behavior by people involved in low-level drug offenses and reduces the number of minorities being arrested and referred to the criminal justice system.
Speaking from his office in November 2016, Underhill outlined his shift away from “the punitive and sanction based model” of treating individuals with addition problems to more of a harm reduction “medical-based treatment” program.
Underhill said the decision to focus on Old Town/Chinatown and the Lloyd District with LEAD was made because of there is a high concentration of people using drugs or drinking alcohol in public. The decision makers are keenly aware that LEAD won’t just be a program to treat addition.
“They’re going to often times be homeless,” Underhill said of the people who will most likely be enrolled in the program. “They’re going to have mental health issues that need to be addressed, as well as the addiction issue.”
How LEAD will work in Portland
It will be up to the Portland Police Bureau’s Central Precinct Street Crimes Unit and Bike Patrol Unit to determine who in the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood are eligible for LEAD.
Portland Police Officer Branden Combs is one of the 4-person Street Crimes Unit that will be a part of the LEAD referral program. Combs said police in the Rose City are very excited for a new approach when addressing addition.
“These are people who are stuck in a cycle,” Combs said. “It’s their routine. We have a routine of waking up and eating breakfast, they have a routine of waking up, breaking into someone’s car and then going out and getting dope.”
Some of the people who will be eligible for LEAD have been arrested 10-20 times for the same offenses and have never been able to get help, Combs said.
He hopes the cycle is broken with LEAD.
“These aren’t bad people,” Combs said. “LEAD will help them in ways that a police officer can’t.”
The LEAD program will start off with 10 case workers who will physically respond to the scene, and “they will take over care and custody,” Underhill said. Each case worker will have about 30 clients.
The case workers will be employed by Central City Concern.
For LEAD eligible individuals, “the police are not going to be submitting the case to my office for prosecution review,” Underhill said. “We’re not involving the court system.”
Participation is voluntary but requires completion of an in-depth assessment within 30-days of arrest for the case not to be filed.
Prior to February 27, once police had probable cause to arrest someone for possession of a controlled substance, there were very few options for that person to get help. They would be forced into the criminal justice system, booked into jail, given a court date and fingers were crossed that the person would get help.
With LEAD, the case managers in Portland will identify the individual’s needs, such as treatment, housing, education or employment.
LEAD is different than most traditional treatment programs and drug courts in that it will allow people enrolled in the system to continue to use while they seek treatment.
With drug courts, “we insist on no more use of a controlled substance, [but] that’s not a model for everybody,” Underhill said. “It doesn’t work for everybody to quit cold turkey.”
Underhill admits, expectations have been set too high for some people. And those who fail traditional treatment programs or drug courts often end up back on the streets.
Officials stress LEAD is not a get-out-of-jail ticket.
People who repeatedly use, who commit additional crime while enrolled in LEAD, could be subject to prosecution. Additionally, people with certain violent offenses in their criminal history are ineligible for LEAD.
Other disqualifications include a person having 5 grams or more of heroin, 10 grams or more of either cocaine or meth.
The program is not open to individuals who are trafficking drugs. Underhill said his office will remain committed to prosecuting drug trafficking organizations.
The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners allocated $800,000 to develop, launch, implement and evaluate LEAD.