Bob Quinn, RIP
  • PHRA
  • Bob Quinn, RIP

Bob Quinn, a University District icon and brave, cantankerous, and mostly unsung hero, has died. He attempted suicide late last week and passed away in the hospital several days later.

A native of Saskatchewan, Canada, he spent most of his life in the University District, where he was instantly recognizable for his bushy head of curly hair, spectacles, and fingerless wool gloves. He was the founding father of the People's Harm Reduction Alliance and a national pioneer of needle exchanges—he rightly saw their possibilities for (in descending order of importance) reducing suffering, restoring dignity, contributing to the public health of users and the community at large, and reducing the public tax burden incurred by taking care of people who contract chronic diseases through shared drug equipment.

His hospice work during the peak of the AIDS crisis led him down the road to help injection-drug users, out in the open—an approach that sometimes ran afoul of the local Chamber of Commerce and even government-run public-health programs. But he knew that the stigma surrounding drug use often leads to isolation, which leads to desperation, which leads to people making increasingly destructive choices. Quinn didn't wait for the law and the government to catch up. He led the way—not in a clinic, but on the sidewalk, with a folding table where he handed out clean needles, condoms, and other ways to protect people from disease.

He could be stubborn and thorny, which were necessary qualities for his chosen vocation. He could see a crisis that other people preferred to ignore and bullheadedly decided to do something about it. That's never a recipe for popularity. But we're all better off because there are stubborn, thorny people like Quinn in the world.

"He did the job that no-one was willing to do," says Shilo Murphy, the current head of PHRA, who considers Quinn a father figure. Quinn, Murphy says, helped him when he was on the streets and changed his life by giving him his first real responsibility—to show up at the needle-exchange table to help people. "He started the needle exchange when the stats weren't out there yet and nobody was saying that this is disease prevention," Murphy says. "The Chamber of Commerce went after him for it, and other people, but he stood his ground... He started it. He fought that fight. And there are thousands upon thousands of people who don't have HIV because of this person. He is a cultural hero."

Why did Quinn kill himself? Murphy only says that he left a letter, indicating he'd "run out of things to take care of" and that he had his own demons to wrestle with. "People who are powerful, people who start programs, need help too," Murphy said. "It breaks my heart that he didn't ask for help from the people who loved him."

I mentioned Quinn briefly in this story because, even though he didn't identify as an anarchist, he lived the value of mutual aid—of self-organization, of people helping people directly, and not waiting for some agency to show up and do the work hard, immediate work that needs to be done.

Bob and Shilo.
  • PHRA
  • Bob and Shilo.

I had seen Quinn around for years but had never talked to him until we ran into each other at Magus bookstore (his favorite, Murphy says). I introduced myself and told him I was working on a story about anarchism and had been an admirer from afar—he looked at me skeptically over his spectacles, beneath his bushy black eyebrows, and said he'd think about talking to me. The result was a long email correspondance about his life and the evolution of his work.

At one point, Quinn told me, he simply collected and bought syringes to carry around in a satchel to hand out to known injection-drug users. Just because nobody else was doing it.

The story he sent me—over several emails—is cleaned up with minor editing and posted below. It's good reading. I always regretted not being able to share more of it in print, so I'm sharing it here. One of my favorite passages, about his early days with his satchel:

When you are a part of a bureaucracy, you have to take the bureaucracy with you everywhere you go. When you are an individual or a small group, you just have to take yourself, the small group and what you need. It's travelling lightly in a true sense... We were all just people helping other people—people with names, faces and sometimes families that we knew. It was like pulling Gerry-not-Jerry out of traffic. I could have formed a committee to do this, but it was much quicker just doing it myself... I wasn't trying to create an organization. I was just trying to keep some of the faces in my head alive until the people who should have been doing this work—the health department, etc.—realized that the U-district had a bit of a problem.

A memorial is being planned, stay tuned for details. But the People's Harm Reduction Alliance (an independent non-profit that charges where government public-health programs fear to tread) is his legacy. If you want to honor him, please donate. Their work saves lives.

So long, Bob.

* * *

Bob Quinn, in his own words, a conversation that began with me meeting him in a bookstore, asking if he'd talk to me about the U District needle exchange, and giving him my email address.

* * *

April 16:

This whole thing kind of hits me as weird and strange and maybe even kind of odd, so it must be the right thing to do. So the short answer to your question about will-I-talk-with-you is sure. I am more than happy to do that.

But before I go on and babble about things, let me tell you that PHRA is the third organization that has run the exchange in the U-district. The first was my organization Beyond CHAOS, the Community Health and AIDS Outreach Service, then came Street Outreach Services and now PHRA which really should be pronounced "fra" and not "pra."

Okay, I will now try to send this off after which I will phone you as soon as I find a phone so I can give you the same response without the history lesson.

April 18:

Okay hi. Way back when AIDS first hit, it was a CRISIS!!! that nobody really understood. I don't know how old you are or where you were when AIDS first appeared, but it was in the news every morning and evening because it was this black hole of uncertainty. Something needed to be done and it needed to be done yesterday because A LOT of people were dying (and dying very quickly).

I was working in mental-health day treatment at the time and living on Capitol Hill and saw a lot of people I knew casually vanish and die. And so I started working with some community groups like the Chicken Soup Brigade and Fremont Public Association to help do what needed doing. One thing led to another and I started working on my Masters degree at Antioch University in downtown Seattle. To get there, I took a bus—either a 10 or a 43—which dropped me off at a place where I had to walk by the needle exchange to get to the school which was in Belltown at the time. A week or two later and I was volunteering there. (The Chicken Soup and Fremont things kind of fell by the wayside once I had reached a level of death overload.) But this needle exchange thing was different and wasn't dealing strictly with with DEATH. I could do this.

And so, I got to know the people who worked at the table and the community and the users and it was some of the users from the U-district who suggested bringing some supplies (needles, alcohol wipes, etc.). I talked to the people I knew with the health dept. about whether they were going to expand to the U-district and they said no because there was no problem there. And while I never set out with a "Fuck you—I'll show you there's a problem" attitude, I did set out with many people's faces in my head. People who had died of AIDS or drug use and I wanted to do my bit to try to solve the problem.

Classic case in point: I once knew this guy named "Gerry-not-Jerry." Well, that's how I think of him. Native American. Major alcohol and drug problems. Always called me "Angel." He would always show up in the U-district and be drunk off his ass (often mere steps away from Magus Books at 42nd and the Ave). For one week of every month and then he's vanish for the rest of the month. While in the U-district and not drunk off his ass, he often had tirades about traffic zipping up and down the Ave. And it often took someone like me to walk into traffic, grab "Gerry-not-Jerry" and pull him off the street—"Get the fuck off the street!"—and put him someplace safe. Was this going to help in any way? Well, it would keep Gerry-not-Jerry from getting killed by a car.

The harm-reduction model would say that this was a step in harm reduction. Maybe, just maybe, some people would say, he'll go get help or something now. Well, we didn't think so either. But we kept him alive. And by being alive, change can happen.

Gerry-not-Jerry died a few years back when his liver or kidney gave out while he was being taken to either jail or detox. I can't remember which. He is missed by a few and remembered by more.

Okay, that's it for now. I will write more later. Bob

April 19, 10:51 am:

AIDS was happening. Crisis, crisis, crisis. I had talked to people with the health department because I volunteered at the exchange at 2nd and Pike. They were talking of expanding but "we mustn't step on anybody's toes." Well I too would rather not step on anyone's toes, but things get lost in committees or put off for another meeting or the paperwork gets held up or... I'd done my homework by getting to know the community in the U-district with my travelling exchange that I'd operated for over a year.

When you are a part of a bureaucracy, you have to take the bureaucracy with you everywhere you go. When you are an individual or a small group, you just have to take yourself, the small group and what you need. It's travelling lightly in a true sense. I relied on myself, I stored things at the house I lived in and worked for free eating any expenses I happened to incur. Supplies all came from the health department. To begin with, I went downtown to the exchange at 2nd and Pike. Then, when I started collecting more and more needles, the health department sent a van to where I lived. (First on Capitol Hill and then Wallingford. I carried around a satchel which had a little bit of everything in it.) Later, when the exchange became more fixed and formal, I used some of the businesses that I had a relationship with to store things. We were all just people helping other people—people with names, faces and sometimes families that we knew. It was like pulling Gerry-not-Jerry out of traffic. I could have formed a committee to do this, but it was much quicker just doing it myself.

When the military located Osama bin Laden, they didn't send in heavy duty tanks and armaments, bombers and god knows what else to kill him. They sent in the Seals (was it the Seals or some other group of assassins?) which went in, did what they were supposed to do and got out as fast as possible. I wasn't trying to create an organization. I was just trying to keep some of the faces in my head alive until the people who should have been doing this work—the health department, etc—realized that the U-district had a bit of a problem. Was it that much worse than in other parts of the city and county? I don't know, probably not, but it's where I had planted myself and felt at home.

When I went public with what I'd been doing, it was on the advice of one of my professors from school. (I was working on my Masters from Antioch University.) I talked to a reporter (Eric Scigliano) from the Weekly (the Stranger had not started yet). The health department denied any knowledge of what I'd been doing which I found odd. The U district chamber of commerce (which I didn't even know existed) expressed faux-concern about the problem. And I kept doing what I was doing with a little more spotlight on me.

The move to the table was done because people needing supplies needed to have a set place to focus on. Not everybody had me walking by them on the street or coming by their houses. It also gave me time to be at work and time not to be. It also gave me my first volunteers—we were all volunteers since none of us were paid—so I could do other things than needle exchange all day. It was also done because Neil Heiman or Scott Soules of the U-district chamber of commerce said a table would never work on the Ave. I thought that was silly and so, without thinking anything through, I took a table out in front of Tower Records one day (I think it was a Friday or Saturday) and it's gone on from there.

April 19, 9:13 pm:

When we last left our intrepid hero...

So I went public, the chamber of commerce were jerks with a lot of "we'd do something if we could" faux concern and I set up the table on the Ave in front of Tower Records. For people new to the city, that's where the Book Corral or something is now right across from University Bookstore. University Bookstore and Tower Records were both large rather permanent entities that had been in the neighbourhood for ages. After all, if I was going to stop a larger tragedy from taking place, I would need to be visible. And the best way to be visible was to be in a place where people could see you.

Now, i'll be the first to admit that I'm sometimes a little less than subtle in how I do things. And yes, this may have been one of those times. But it seemed to me that if I was going to be noticed by anybody who might need new needles or condoms or anything else that the exchange had to offer, we would have to be visible. It also seemed to me that if the police or any frat boys were going to hassle us, it would be best to have a certain degree of visibility to make them think twice. And so it went as we attracted new users, condom users and people who just had questions or concerns about anything and everything. We sort of became the hub of neighbourhood life for many people.

Did I ask permission to be in front of Tower Records? Well, no. But we were on the public sidewalk and we always tried to clean up after ourselves and so we all learned to coexist quite nicely, thank you. And we always tried to be friendly to people who worked of shopped there. From what I've been told but have no data to verify this, if we were outside, people who boosted for a living to pay for their habits or whatever avoided Tower and went elsewhere to ply their trade. I can only remember one occurance of a user getting busted for shoplifting while we worked outside. In that case, the security guard chastised him for risking our existence. When someone tried to start a problem for the exchange, it was usually the members of the community who would jump in to our defense first.

And then there was the chamber of commerce. They hated our guts. Or maybe they just hated my guts. Either way, we had a known enemy in them. But there wasn't much that they could do. I was registered with the state of Washington. We were a federal tax-exempt organisation. And we even stated to get funding from the city and county health departments at the end of our fourth year of existence. And this was really strange for several reasons. I didn't want the job anymore. I just wanted to quit and move onto what was next in my life. I had told people from the health department this too. But the health department wasn't stepping up to take the exchange over. No one was stepping up. So, in my mind at least, I was morally obligated to continue. And then there was the fact that I was a Canadian. I had come to Seattle many years ago but was still a Canadian. Was the health department supposed to be funding Canadian students? Probably not. But according to one person I knew on the granting committee, the committee was given no alternative but to fund us. That, the person told me, was already a given that they had to live with.

And so I stayed on as I started to get paid but still lived with way too much needle exchange paraphenalia around the house I shared with my housemates in Wallingford. This is somewhere around the fifth year of our existence. And now there was also Harris, my new dog/puppy. She would actually turn out to be my soulmate and the reason I would eventually leave the exchange, but that's neither here nor there for the story right now. I now had to keep her occupied and happy as well. It's the least a caring person can do for another life they come in contact with, right?

So Harris and I would go to the U-district everyday. More often than not, I'd be carrying supplies that had been dropped off at our house by the health department. Sometimes it took two, three, or four trips to keep our closet in Beauty and the Books and later the Espresso Roma stocked. I was tired though. Very, very tired.

When the chanber of commerce hired a senior lecturer from the school of social work to get us out of the way and off the Ave, I quickly learned that she didn't do any background work before she offered suggestions as to where to move to. It seemed quite evident that they were trying to get rid of me in the cheapest way possible. So I just blew her off.

And then the chamber had the exchange's funding cut. This was verified by two of the members of the granting committee and, while being highly unethical, may well have been illegal as well. I didn't care any more. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

I can fill you in more if you want. Bob

* * *

He did fill me in more, but the final email gets into internecine politics of different organizations which are confusing, and minor accusations I haven't verified. The gist is that Quinn says he saw the end coming for the out-in-front operation and it was best that Shilo Murphy took over and PHRA was started in an alley, renting space from a church.

Quinn eventually left PHRA officially, but Murphy says he still stopped by every day and was always consulted for advice before any major decision was made. He was still the figurehead and the godfather.

And, in a sense, he still is.