Everett task force to address street-level effects of homelessness

EVERETT — One gripe among Everett Public Library users surpassed all others in a poll last year: people loitering outside the main branch who made some patrons uncomfortable.

Another complaint was an unkempt group of regulars who use the library as a place to hang out, or even doze off.

Wary library patrons aren’t alone. The city has fielded similar feedback about Everett Station, the Carl Gipson Senior Center and city parks.

All of that has prompted Mayor Ray Stephanson to form a task force to address street-level nuisances, including homelessness and loitering. The goal is to gather downtown residents, business owners, social service providers, faith groups and others to talk through ways to improve the situation.

“I really believe that we will come up with solutions and ideas that can help this problem and at the same time serve the most needy in our community,” Stephanson told the City Council recently.

Work is set to get underway in earnest within a few weeks. The eventual goal is to craft recommendations for the city’s downtown business district. Those approaches may later apply to other neighborhoods.

It’s no simple the issue they’re taking on.

As Snohomish County’s seat and largest city, Everett hosts the area’s county jail and many of the county’s social services. More than 80 percent of the county’s emergency shelter beds are in Everett. The city accommodates more than 50 percent of the county’s stock of transitional and voucher-based housing.

Contributing to the problem are an array of social issues as varied as job loss, the scarcity of affordable housing, addiction and mental illness.

The annual Point In Time homeless count conducted in January found more than 107 people in Everett living outdoors or in a tent; 18 in motor vehicles or travel trailers; and three in abandoned buildings.

“Our goal is, as much as we can, not to go into this with a lot of preconceived ideas,” city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said. “With that in mind, one of the very first things they want to do is make sure we know what this population is they’re talking about.”

On just about any given night, one or more of Everett’s houses of worship opens its doors to offer free dinners.

“We view the community meals as an important process of caring for those in need in our community,” said the Rev. Alan Dorway of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Everett.

Dorway’s church feeds people on Wednesdays. Weekly attendance has increased to about 150, compared to about 120 a few months ago.

Dorway grew concerned this spring after seeing petitions in circulation that urged the city to do more to address vagrancy and related issues. He plans to join the city-level discussions.

“I think calling people vagrants is demeaning and there are nuanced reasons why people are homeless,” the pastor said. “I am for any type of dialogue in the city that might shed light on the situation here in Everett, but I’m against the petition.”

Among the many institutions factoring into the discussion is the Snohomish County Jail.

Everett City Councilman Ron Gipson and others have raised questions about whether 12:01 a.m. inmate release times at the county lockup might contribute to nuisances downtown.

The midnight release time is established by law, said Shari Ireton, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, which runs the jail. Exceptions exist when an inmate or staff anticipate a problem.

“The jail doesn’t want to contribute to loitering or trespassing or any other criminal problems in Everett, so we certainly want to work with the city,” Ireton said. “We have to balance inmates’ rights as well. We have to follow the letter of the law. We can’t hold people indefinitely.”

People with mental health problems are flagged by a health care professional at the jail and are not released until 8 a.m., unless someone comes to pick them up, Ireton said. Some people ask to stay until morning to get a ride. People who post bail are released at all hours of the day and night.

Mental illness, addiction and homelessness are widespread among the jail population. The county human services department documented that when it studied 23 inmates who in 2012 were booked into the jail at least nine times during a 10-month stretch. More than 60 percent had been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

Those 23 people accounted for 399 trips to mental health centers and hospitals or calls to paramedics during the period of study.

Sheriff Ty Trenary has undertaken a number of reforms since taking office last year, including ending some contracts to house inmates from outside of Snohomish County. Just last week, the jail placed restrictions on how many inmates it can house in medical units.

For its task force on street-level issues, Everett hopes to bring in about two dozen stakeholders, Pembroke said. Invites have gone out to the Everett Gospel Mission, Compass Health, the Everett School District and Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, among others. The plan is to meet weekly and return with recommendations toward the end of the summer.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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