This is Part 1 of a three-part series about the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods.
They may be wearing uniforms and sporting a Snohomish County Sheriff’s patch, but law enforcement the officers who enter the county’s homeless encampments aren’t there to kick residents out of their tents. They’re there to help them, get them off of drugs – and eventually put a permanent roof over their heads.
But before they can do anything else, they have to build trust.
Many people living in Snohomish County’s homeless encampments have had contact with police before. The relationship they are used to having usually involves getting kicked out of their homes or getting arrested.
So, when a sergeant, two deputies and a social worker with the Sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods enter the camps, many times, the residents’ first instinct is to turn the other way or to announce that they will be moving on soon. It takes a little effort for the officers to get residents to hear them out.
The homeless outreach program was created by Sheriff Ty Trenary in February 2015 as a new way to approach homeless heroin addicts in Snohomish County. Perhaps people will stay off the streets longer and stay off of drugs if they are put in rehab instead of jail, and if they are eventually released into housing instead of back into their homeless camps.
Right now, the program’s main focus is on unincorporated Lynnwood and south Everett, but there are also camps near Mill Creek and Monroe that they have been visiting. Eventually, officers hope to have the resources to go farther north.
“There is a crime prevention element to this,” said Sergeant Ian Huri, the first person to be appointed to the Office of Neighborhoods. “The crime rate does go down the more people we pull out of these camps.”
The approach could also save lives. A heroin epidemic is growing in both Washington state and especially Snohomish County. Between 2011 and 2013, one in five heroin deaths in Washington occurred in Snohomish County. In 2013 alone, more than 80 people died of an accidental heroin or opioid overdose in Snohomish County. The age group affected the most in Snohomish County between 2011 and 2013 were young adults between the ages of 18 and 29.
More than 60 percent of people admitted to detoxification programs in Snohomish County in 2013 were there for heroin use.
“The stigma against using heroin just isn’t there anymore,” Deputy Bud McCurry said.
If successful, the Office of Neighborhoods could also cut down on jail costs by reducing the number of inmates and repeat inmates.
Homelessness is also a growing concern for Snohomish County. The annual Point in Time count has yet to release its final count for 2016, but preliminary results released in late January show 481 homeless people living in Snohomish County, a 49 percent increase from the 295 people counted in 2015.
The Office of Neighborhoods began with just Huri. In August, social worker Jesse Calliham was added to the team. Then, in September, two deputies joined. It has been a group of four ever since, and they operate as a tightly knit unit.
The Office of Neighborhoods has a process. First, they arrange for a homeless person to get a state ID card, then health insurance, followed by a chemical dependency assessment. The results of the assessment are sent to Calliham, along with a treatment recommendation. Once a person is admitted for treatment, Calliham arranges for housing so patients go straight from treatment into a house, and continues to manage his or her case file.
McCurry compares the process of getting clean and into housing to that of making a cake.
“If you have all the ingredients but no instructions, it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “What we do is provide the recipe. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.”
–Story and photos by Natalie Covate