'LA Crack House'? Homeless walking out of taxpayer-funded building with crack pipes

Every day, dozens of people line up outside the nonprofit Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles to pick up crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia, then, they light up right there on the Skid Row sidewalk. 

Estela Lopez, Executive Director of the LA Downtown Industrial Business Improvement District, paints a grim picture. 

"It looks very much like a government-run crack house on the sidewalk. How else can you describe this?" Lopez said.

Throughout the day, drug dealers can be seen profiting from selling drugs to the very people Homeless Healthcare LA is supposed to be helping. In the video, a person connected to the nonprofit is seen fist-bumping a drug dealer before entering the building.

"What you see in this video is nothing short of the worst drug location in Skid Row right now, and that's saying a lot because Skid Row is the drug and overdose capital of Los Angeles," Lopez said.

Lopez notified city and county officials about the activities outside the nonprofit a year ago. 

"I represent business people, people who come there to work, people who live on Skid Row, and people who work on Skid Row. They want their area to be safe. They deserve the same level of safety and attention as any other community," she emphasized.

When no action was taken, Lopez hired a photographer to document the daily activities. On July 2, she presented the video to city and county officials. 

"The county doubled down after seeing this video, supporting harm reduction and saying this is the kind of intervention they endorse," Lopez explained.

Harm reduction programs aim to prevent the spread of diseases by providing meth pipes and needles. We reached out to LA Mayor Karen Bass and the Board of Supervisors for comments; only LA City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto responded.

"The video shows unacceptable behavior. It's appalling," Soto said. 

However, she acknowledged there is tension between public health policies and law enforcement and public safety. 

"There are different perspectives. I believe the county has even asked us to support expanding services at this site, but our office will not stand down from prosecution if services are expanded," Soto said.

Despite the controversy, Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles plans to open two more locations in the same area.

FOX 11 reporter Gina Silva asked Soto if harm reduction centers should be regulated. 

"From my perspective, yes, I think they should be. But I'm not the policymaker, and I'm not going to get out in front of my client. Ultimately, I will defend whatever decision they make," Soto responded.

For Lopez, witnessing this daily activity is extremely frustrating. 

"Here you have a building and a program funded by the county that are clearly enabling drug use and drug sales on the people's sidewalk," she said.

In response, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health issued the following statement: 

"Los Angeles County is currently experiencing the worst overdose crisis in our history and a spectrum of community-based overdose prevention efforts, including harm reduction, are essential to save lives and protect public health and safety. To that end, Public Health ensures harm reduction syringe services are available and accessible to Los Angeles County residents who use drugs and are at extraordinarily high risks for fatal overdoses. Harm reduction services represent an important tool and component of the multi-pronged continuum of prevention, treatment, and recovery services needed to address the overdose crisis and other threats to health and wellbeing throughout the County. 

Harm reduction services save lives. Across Los Angeles County, harm reduction programs reverse over 700 overdoses each month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, harm reduction services are effective and cost-saving; do not increase illegal drug use; and play an important role in reducing the transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV and other infections. People engaged in sterile syringe programs are five times more likely to participate in substance use treatment and three times more likely to reduce or stop injecting than those who have never had access to harm reduction services.

Harm reduction involves a suite of evidence-based services focused on reducing the negative consequences associated with substance use, including preventing and reversing overdose. Harm reduction services are offered without preconditions or a requirement about a person’s readiness to stop using drugs, in recognition that many people are not willing or able to stop using substances. Evidence-based harm reduction services include connections to medical, mental health, and substance use treatment services, peer engagement, distribution of the opioid overdose reversal medication naloxone, distribution of fentanyl and xylazine test strips, infectious disease testing, syringe services programs, and more. 

There is an overall lack of access to safe indoor space for the many people experiencing homelessness who reside in the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles, and the effective provision of harm reduction services engage people who do not always pursue health or social services and who are at increased risk of experiencing overdose. Providers of harm reduction services locate services where people are already engaging in high-risk activities in an effort to encourage connections to care and prevent overdoses.

More information about harm reduction programs are posted at http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/sapc/public/harm-reduction and http://www.cdc.gov/syringe-services-programs/php/safety-effectiveness.html"