Former library could become transitional facility for offenders

EVERETT — Snohomish County leaders have plans for a vacant historic downtown building in hopes of keeping people off the streets and out of jail.

The county is requesting $1.6 million from the state to help renovate the former Carnegie Library so it can house what is being called the Rapid Recidivism Reduction Program.

The plan is to provide transitional housing and social services for homeless people being released from jail for nonviolent crimes or as an alternative to the county lockup.

The county plans to chip in about $500,000 to complete improvements to the vacant building, located at 3001 Oakes Ave.

The county wants to build 20 bedrooms with shared living spaces on one floor. The second floor will house mental health, substance abuse and job training services. Staff also will help participants sign up for health insurance, connect them with a primary care doctor and refer them to other community services.

“The idea is to slow the revolving door at emergency rooms and reduce the impact on law enforcement and the jail,” said Ken Stark, the director of Snohomish County Human Services.

The plan also could lower the number of calls to 911 and reduce the number of people found sleeping in business doorways, Stark said.

It will cost about $1.2 million a year to run the program, he said. That money will come from local sales tax already collected and specifically earmarked for substance abuse and mental health services. Other funding will come from money the county collects for recording fees and marriage licenses.

Most of the participants are expected to qualify for public health care, which would reimburse the county for drug and alcohol addiction programs, and mental health services.

The average stay would be about 90 days, although some people might need to stay longer to become stable enough and qualify for more permanent housing and employment.

The county in February conducted a series of interviews with three dozen jail inmates to look at poverty conditions among those incarcerated. More than half surveyed reported having been homeless in the past year. Nearly 28 percent said they were homeless when they were booked into the jail and 22 percent said they anticipated that they wouldn’t have anywhere to live once they were released. Everyone in these three groups reported having an addiction, mental health issues, or both.

Nearly half of the inmates surveyed didn’t have regular health care and about 22 percent said they use hospital emergency rooms to get routine medical services.

In their pitch to the state, county officials said the program could alleviate some of the pressures on the county jail. The lockup isn’t equipped to provide adequate mental health care or detoxification services, county officials wrote in their application.

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary supports the project. He’s been making costly reforms at the jail after a series of inmate deaths. Trenary has become vocal about changing how the community uses the jail.

“We need to be tough on crime,” Trenary said. “We also have for the last 30 years overused our jail. It’s become one-stop shopping for every social problem we have.”

That includes locking up low-level offenders who would be better served getting help for a drug addiction or a mental illness, he said.

“We are not staffed, nor equipped, to fix addiction or mental illness,” Trenary said.

Those issues are compounded when people don’t have a home, said Kathleen Kyle, an attorney with the Snohomish County Public Defender Association and a member of a citizens advisory committee looking at jail operations.

“Their legal hurdles may be of the least concern to them,” Kyle said. “They don’t know how they’re going to survive at the end of their commitment. With a little more support I think they could be successful.”

People are employable but it can be difficult to get a job if they don’t have a permanent address or a place to take a shower, she said.

Kyle says she hopes the program will be used as an alternative to jail. Putting someone in jail for illegal camping or urinating in public is a temporary and costly Band-Aid, program supporters said.

People with no place to go are released from jail onto Everett streets. That can be an expensive for Everett, deputy city attorney David Hall said.

“There’s a high likelihood they’re going to be arrested again. At that point, no matter where they came from it’s on our dime,” Hall said.

The city pays a $94 booking fee for each inmate and a $65 daily housing fee. It’s also on the hook for medical expenses. Those fees are expected to increase.

Everett also is taking a fresh look at ways to tackle homelessness as part of its community streets initiative. A task force is expected to draw up some recommendations for elected officials.

The county predicts that up to 80 people a year will receive transitional housing through the program, and up to 750 people will use the substance abuse and mental health services.

“We know these beds are going to fill up fast,” Stark said.

The Carnegie building was constructed in 1905 to house the city’s library. The library was there until 1934. The building later housed a funeral parlor and there was some talk of turning it into a museum. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. The county last used the building to house the jail’s work release program. It has been vacant for several years.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; Twitter: @dianahefley.

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