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.

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