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Police, social workers team up to help the community's homeless


April 18, 2018 | View PDF

Christopher Andersson

Embedded social workers Britney Sutton, left, and Rochelle Long walk through a homeless encampment site in the Lakewood area on April 12.

Social workers and local police officers are working together in a new Snohomish County unit which is meant to help homeless individuals get to services that can help them.

Marysville, Arlington and the county are joining forces on the new unit from the County Sheriff's Office of Neighborhoods.

While a similar program existed in the south county, this will be the first time it's been brought to Arlington and Marysville areas.

Local police officers work with embedded social workers to go to camps and find those with homelessness or drug abuse issues.

"We go out and do camp checks. We look for folks that are homeless and need assistance getting off the streets, often who have problems with opiates," said Ken Thomas, a police officer from the Arlington Police Department who is in the unit.

The police officers help guide the social workers and ensure their safety.

"We know where the camps are, we know how to approach people and we know how to make sure its safe," said Mike Buell, a Marysville Police Department police officer with the unit.

Once there, social workers talk with those who want help.

"It's all about reducing barriers," said Britney Sutton, an embedded social worker with the unit. "Which means taking things that are preventing them from getting into treatment, and from engaging them making those things non-existent."

That means supporting homeless individuals with things like transportation or getting proper identification sometimes.

"They can't get their driver's license or get their court stuff taken care of because they don't have transportation, but they can call us and say 'hey, I have court at 1 p.m., my ride dropped through, I don't want to get another warrant,' and we'll help them figure it out," said Sutton.

Police officers said the social workers they work with are a great resource.

"With the social workers we have immediate access to lots of information and resources they can plug us into, and it builds a lot of trust to see us out there with social workers," said Thomas.

"They're the ones who are really doing all the work. We take them out there and provide security for them ... but really the point of contact is with the social workers," said Buell.

Many of the services that the social workers are connecting individuals to are about drug addiction treatment, but there are also a number of other issues that they can help with, such as mental health issues.

"We try and problem solve because there is other stuff that comes out as well," said Rochelle Long, an embedded social worker with the unit.

"We talk to each other and try to find what we can do with this person," she said.

Sometimes that involves helping individuals with more long-term planning and organizing.

"A lot of times they're disorganized. They're just thinking about 'where am I going to sleep tonight, where am I going?'" she said.

The program also helps build trust between those who want help out of homelessness and the police.

Although there is still some skepticism from some people at first.

"Once we make that announcement that we're the embedded social worker group, there's like a tension that drops," said Buell.

"They realize we're not out here to be oppositional, we're trying to get them the help they need," said Thomas.

Other police officers may be looking for active warrants among the homeless population, said Buell, but this specific unit doesn't make that a priority.

"We ask them 'do you have any warrants? We don't want to know what they are, but just do you?'" he said. For those attempting to get treatment, Buell said that they can return later to the question of active warrants and how best to handle them.

"Instead of testifying against them in court, we're often on the defense's side," talking about their client's attempts to progress forward, he said.

Not every homeless person takes up the unit on their offers, but many do.

"Most of them say 'I don't want to be here, I don't want to be sleeping in a tent,' but they don't know what to do," said Long.

Buell said the unit tries to help individuals get to the point where they can accept help.

"I ask them, 'from a scale of 1 to 10, how bad do you want to get out of here?' We get people who say '10, I'm ready to get out of here right now,' and we get some that are 8 or 7, and we say 'well, what's it going to take to get you to 10?'" he said.

The unit was inspired by the south county unit, which has the same role in Lynnwood and the surrounding area, and was started in 2015.

Many homeless individuals were asking about social workers before it had even started in the north.

"It was already a very popular program because people we're asking about it, but we couldn't do anything because we didn't have the social worker contact yet," said Buell.

Before the program the problem of homeless encampments was mostly tackled through enforcement, citations and arrests, said Buell.

"We would come out here and make arrests, and we found that just became a revolving door," said Buell.

There was one area of Marysville known as "the Pit" which had in excess of 50 camps and 150 people at one point in time, he said.

"When they added the social workers, they made huge inroads to building trust and trying to break that cycle," he said.

"It's something that has been needed for a long time," said Thomas.

Enforcement will still be a tactic used by the departments if the social workers are not effective, said Buell.

"We come out to offer help, but behind us is still the law enforcement, the hammer. They're the ones who will be making arrests. But at least we're going out to offer those who want help a way to get it," he said.

A county deputy may be added later to the north county unit, said Buell, but that is depending on funding.

Buell and Thomas hope the program is successful at reducing the homeless population to the point where it is no longer needed.


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