City of Asheville tries to shut down syringe exchange

Brailey Sheridan
Copy Desk Chief
bsherida@unca.edu

Firestorm Books and Coffee and the Steady Collective prepare to fight a zoning violation which threatens to shut down their legal syringe exchange, claiming the violation discriminates against drug users and homeless people in West Asheville.

“We don’t fully understand why the city of Asheville is attempting to censor the content of our community room. We know that the city’s actions will impact drug users, the homeless, neighbors who use syringes for legal medical treatment or transgender individuals, like myself, who are undergoing hormone replacement therapy,” said Libertie Valance, Firestorm Collective member. “We also know that all people are entitled to equal protection under the law and given that we don’t see other businesses that similarly offer space to the community, perhaps to more affluent participants, undergoing the same level of scrutiny that we are currently being subjected to, we believe this constitutes discrimination.”

The Steady Collective, a 2-year-old 501(c)(3), operates a syringe exchange in Firestorm Books and Coffee on Haywood Street in West Asheville for two ½ hours each week, according to a press release by the Steady Collective on Sept. 18.  

“During the first eight months of 2018, the programming in this room constituted about 1000 hours of community content. Something we are really proud of. Of that, Steady Collective’s 150 minutes a week was a very small percentage, it’s about 3.5 percent of our operating hours that Steady is here in this room doing its education and outreach event,” Valance said.

Firestorm is a cooperative bookstore located on Haywood Road in West Asheville and is home to the syringe exchange, a program supporting harm reduction. Photo by Emily-Ann Trautman.

Firestorm received a notice of violation by the City of Asheville zoning administrator on Aug. 8 which was amended on Aug. 17, stating by hosting the Steady Collective, Firestorm’s operation most closely resembles a shelter in violation of the zoning requirements defined by the city’s Unified Development Ordinance. On Sept. 17, Firestorm and the Steady Collective filed an appeal and will appear before the Board of Adjustments later this year.

“Our NOV explicitly said that ‘operating a needle exchange most closely resembles the operation of a shelter,’ according to the UDO. We do not believe that is true. We believe that we are an accessory use for the bookstore and so we will move forward maintaining that,” said Hillary Brown, director and harm reductionist at the Steady Collective.

Steady and Firestorm received mixed information from city officials as to why their NOV states their syringe exchange most closely resembles a homeless shelter when they believe there are other things in the code they more closely resemble.

According to Brown, City of Asheville Principle Planner Shannon Tuch, stated the target demographic of Steady’s outreach remains the reason they received the violation. Tuch was not available for an interview.

“At different points we have been told different things. At one point we were told that ‘it’s not what we do, but who we serve’ and Steady primarily serves folks who are homeless or precariously housed. That also sounds like discrimination to us. It’s confusing how two ½ hours, which is a block of time and an event in an existing space that is not a shelter, can be a physical space where people are housed,” Brown said.

According to Brown, the appeals process could take two to three months to complete. The appeal will be decided by the Asheville City Council.

“Now that we are in the appeals process it is actually relevant to city council and ultimately the city which will decide whether or not to appeal a victory in court by our organizations,” Brown said. “I think at this point we need to ask the question ‘where is city counsel on this issue?’”

Syringe exchanges do not exist in the UDO because they were not legal in North Carolina until 2016 through House Bill 972. Brown said the city of Asheville plans to write syringe exchanges into their zoning code giving the city power to decide where needle exchanges can exist, though neither Steady, nor Firestorm requested a text amendment in their appeals.  

“They will be writing that into the code so they can regulate where we can and cannot be. And that’s unfortunate because syringe exchange needs to be able to go where the crisis is, where the need is, we need to be in West Asheville, because that’s where we are seeing really high overdose numbers,” Brown said.  

Steady, as well as 29 other syringe exchange programs, operate in North Carolina legally under state law. According to Brown, if syringe exchange is written into Asheville’s UDO, Steady will be the first exchange in North Carolina regulated by a city’s zoning code.

“It is a state law that we operate under,” Brown said. “We submit a safety and security plan and yearly data to the state. The state is also aware we have been operating and we’ve been operating legally and are recognized as one of those 30 active exchanges in the state.”

Steady set up its first syringe exchange in Firestorm’s community space in November 2016 to promote harm reduction tactics. Today, Steady meets in Firestorm every Tuesday and distributes clean injecting equipment, naloxone, used for overdose reversal and information about peer support groups and recovery to their 15 to 40 participants in the West Asheville area, according to Steady’s website.

Last year, Beck Nippes, an employee at Firestorm, used Steady’s services to help a family member and longtime heroin user begin detoxing. They provided Nippes with not only naloxone, but also resources and peer support. Today, Nippes said she does not know where her family member resides, but she hopes she has access to programs like Steady.

“They connected me to professionals that could navigate through the ins and out of her out of state insurance and referred us to recovery meetings. I can’t tell you how her story ends and I hope where ever she is she has access to an organization like Steady Collective, because harm reduction means connection in a world that is harsh and isolating and full of misconceptions, and that’s what she deserves,” Nippes said.

Steady’s syringe exchange also serves as a hub for participants to collect materials for others in the community who may be afraid to come to the exchange.

“While its a relatively small amount of traffic for our bookstore, which is great, the impact is much larger because often people are getting information, supplies and materials and are taking that back out into their community and distributing that. So oftentimes for each person you’re talking to, you’re actually reaching a much larger number of people,” Valance said.

According to Valance, Steady’s needle exchange in Firestorm remains fully operational while the organizations wait for their appearance with the Board of Adjustments later this year and they will continue to fight the zoning violation as long as they have the resources to do so.

“This is a resource that the city of Asheville should be providing, but given that the city hasn’t stepped up on the plate on that, I think it’s incumbent on all of us as neighbors, business neighbors, residential neighbors, to ensure that these resources are available,” Valance said.

Caitlin Kelleher, a representative for Healthy Campus, said she hopes to bring more attention to harm reduction tactics and Steady by hosting an on campus naloxone training with the organization on Sept. 27 in the Sherrill Center.

“My concern, as a health promotion student, is if we sleep on this issue, people are going to die. These people who are already houseless and an otherwise marginalized community are being now further marginalized by the city. It’s some like cartoon villain shit going on,” Kelleher said.

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