The Seattle Police Department swept through Belltown in April, on the hunt for dozens of suspected Honduran drug dealers who had allegedly taken over the drug trade in the neighborhood. Although SPD's creatively titled Operation Belltown Crackdown managed to snag more than 30 suspected dealers, the neighborhood's problems are far from over.
After decades of open drug dealing and prostitution on their streets, Belltown residents think they may finally have a way of fixing a problem the police could not: bring more drug addicts to the area. Defying the NIMBY logic neighborhood groups generally rely upon, Belltown residents want to bring Clean Dreams, a drug-treatment program, to their neighborhood.
"People are really fucking exasperated by these crack dealers," says Belltown Community Council president Zander Batchelder. "We just want to break the cycle."
Clean Dreams first sprang up in Rainier Beach three years ago. Backed by neighborhood groups and the Seattle Police Department, the $300,000, 18-month program was designed to cut down on street crime in the area. Clean Dreams focuses on peer counseling—many staff counselors have previously been involved in drugs and prostitution—and pre-arrest diversion for low-level street crimes, meaning that police can offer arrestees a choice between going to jail or signing up with Clean Dreams. In addition to peer counseling, Clean Dreams helps clients find jobs and housing, pays for things like school and child care, and provides treatment and counseling for drug addiction.
"As long as I've been here, there's been a crack problem [in Belltown]," Batchelder says. "The city does a lot of arrests in Belltown, but for every arrest they make, there are a dozen incidents they miss. There needs to be an alternative to 'let's put them away.' The end result should be to get them out of that lifestyle."
Batchelder and other Belltown residents may be on the right track. According to a recent study by University of Washington assistant sociology professor Alexes Harris, Clean Dreams has had tremendous success at reducing recidivism and turning its clients' lives around.
Harris's study indicates that Clean Dreams clients had an average of 7.7 prior convictions—for theft, assault, and various other crimes, although the overwhelming majority were drug offenses—before entering the program. After leaving Clean Dreams, only 18 percent of clients reoffend, drastically lower than the statewide recidivism rate of 62 percent. In addition, Harris's study estimates that while jailing an offender in King County Jail costs about $60,000 a year, Clean Dreams only costs $8,500 per client.
The program has also drawn support from the King County Sheriff's office. In September, King County Sheriff's Major James Graddon sent a letter to then King County executive Ron Sims, lobbying for a Clean Dreams–style arrest-diversion program in Skyway. "It is important to meet [clients'] basic needs so that we can prevent our young people from ending up in the criminal justice system," Graddon wrote. "Providing financial and case-management support to those who are at risk may prevent these young adults from being arrested in the future. The program is also consistent with other efforts underway to divert people away from the criminal justice system and homelessness."
Although Clean Dreams has the support of law enforcement and neighborhood residents, the biggest challenge for the program is surviving in a recession when many social-service programs are seeing their budgets slashed. According to Clean Dreams program director Nature Carter-Gooding, it would cost about $750,000 to set up a program in Belltown. "When you get arrested and get out of jail, you usually go back," Carter-Gooding says. "You have to look at what [Clean Dreams would be] saving the courts and the city. I'm a taxpayer; I want my dollars invested in something that's going to save money and promote public safety."