Everett homeless encampment cleared out

EVERETT — A semi-permanent homeless encampment near the Everett Gospel Mission was cleared away last week.

On Monday, chain-link fences were installed on both sides of Smith Avenue where it runs under I-5. The lighting in the underpass has also been upgraded to make it less attractive to transients.

The encampment under the freeway has existed for years, but conditions had been deteriorating recently. The underpass was littered with garbage. Drug dealing and assaults were increasing problems.

Between October and mid-January, police officers made hundreds of contacts with people in the encampment, and cited or arrested nearly 60 people, Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman said.

Sylvia Anderson, CEO of the Everett Gospel Mission, said she made the suggestion to the city that something be done about the encampment.

“It feels like to us that things were getting out of control,” Anderson said. “The sanitary conditions were beyond what anybody should be able to bear.”

It’s what happened next that was different. Anderson, Templeman and the heads of other social service agencies had served together on Everett’s Community Streets Initiative to find solutions to chronic homelessness and other street-level nuisances and problems.

The initiative is now moving into its long-term implementation phase, but the connections established during the initial months of meetings allowed that network to quickly respond to the acute problems in the Smith Avenue encampment.

Over several weeks of outreach, police officers and workers from the Gospel Mission, Catholic Community Services, Cocoon House, Evergreen Manor, Compass Mental Health, Volunteers of America, WorkSource Snohomish County and Pioneer Human Services of Skagit County approached people in the area to see if they could connect them with some kind of services.

“We were very, very deliberate in terms of partnering up with a lot of different social service organizations to make sure we weren’t just taking an enforcement approach to this issue,” Templeman said.

The outreach was the first of a three-pronged approach cleaning up the encampment: “Outreach, nudge and push,” as Anderson called it.

“We were seeing up to 60 people a night, between 30 and 40 all during the day,” Anderson said.

On Feb. 25, Anderson reported to the Everett City Council that 23 fewer people were spending that night on the street after the initial outreach.

In the “nudge” stage, people with a warrant or who refused to leave would be taken by police officers to the station for a conversation, again with the goal of connecting the homeless with social services.

The push was clearing out the area and putting the fence up. No one was arrested during that final push, Templeman said.

By the middle of last week, the only people on the sidewalk were workers finishing up the fence and a couple residents of the mission taking a cigarette break.

Where the remainder of homeless people who refused offers of services went is not known, raising concerns that they just relocated to another neighborhood.

“We know that some displacement will happen, we know that from our experience,” city communications director Meghan Pembroke said.

And while getting people into social services is still the goal, those who refused will be held accountable for their behavior, Pembroke said.

Templeman said officers are continuing with stepped-up patrols all over downtown Everett. But in addition to crime prevention, officers are also handing out “law enforcement priority” cards to transients that will allow them to essentially jump to the front of the line for social services at many of the participating agencies.

“I don’t know how effective it’s been, but it’s been another attempt to try and keep these people out of the criminal justice system,” Templeman said.

Anderson said she and other social service providers will do what they can in coming weeks to find out where the remaining homeless people went, and to continue their outreach program.

“We’re going to have to prove to people they can trust us, that we’re not going to trick anyone,” she said. “It’s a new way that we’re looking at providing services to folks where traditional services aren’t appropriate.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com.

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