EVERETT — Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday said Snohomish County has come up with an idea that ought to go statewide in helping Washington tackle some of its toughest problems.
The state is wrestling with the interrelated scourges of opioid addiction, a growing homeless population and untreated mentally ill people being warehoused behind bars, Inslee said. County leaders have come up with an idea that promises to make a difference in each of those areas.
“I think this is genius on the streets,” he said.
The governor made his comments while touring the diversion center the county is about to open in downtown Everett — a place where people living on the streets can be brought immediately for temporary housing, medical attention and social services as soon as they ask for help.
The governor was joined by county officials and two women who said they’ve battled addiction and homelessness here.
Time is precious when people are ready for help and still living on the edge, Shandell Orr said.
“This is what addicts need,” she said.
People want off the streets, and lives are at risk when they must wait for space in a care center or treatment bed, Julia McCracken said. She was fortunate to get the help she needed.
“I truly don’t think I would be alive if I was still out there,” she said.
The center is expected to open in March at 1918 Wall St., at one time the main county jail, but in recent years a work-release center. Closed early last year because of budget cuts, it will now house 44 diversion beds.
The project has grown out of the partnerships between county human services workers, jail staff and sheriff’s deputies.
People at the diversion center will be brought there by deputies working with social workers, a team known as the sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods. They won’t be under arrest.
Up to 95 percent of those brought to the diversion center are expected to be wrestling with heroin and other opioids, said Cammy Hart-Anderson, a manager for the county’s Human Services Department.
The center will be staffed with people trained in emergency medicine. It also will have those who can help clients obtain medically assisted treatment for opioid withdrawal, including prescriptions to Suboxone, the buprenorphine-based compound that can help ease symptoms and improve chances of recovery.
Many people staying in homeless encampments around the county also are living with mental illness. The center will be equipped to connect them with the right assistance.
Most people who are brought to the center will spend a couple of weeks. Over the course of a year, officials expect to help 300 or more. The program is expected to cost about $1.5 million each year.
The diversion center will be cheaper for taxpayers than booking people into jail, Sheriff Ty Trenary said.
For years, the Everett lock-up has served as the community’s defacto mental health hospital and detox center. In response to crowding and in-custody deaths involving people with serious health problems, Trenary enacted stricter booking restrictions for nonviolent offenders.
A recent examination of jail bookings found about 50 people who top the list for cycling in and out of the lockup. About 85 percent of those have history of treatment for opioid withdrawal while in the jail, sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said. Among that group, the top three were all in their 30s and had more than 40 arrests apiece.
In 2016 there were 90 overdose deaths in Snohomish County. Of those, 44 were considered heroin-related and most of the others were attributed to prescription opiates, sometimes in combination with other drugs.
Projects such as the diversion center are about helping people reclaim their lives, and this “is the first open door to get people on that pathway,” County Executive Dave Somers said.
“This is a smart way to do that and a compassionate way to do it,” Inslee said.
The governor’s proposed budget includes money to support the county’s efforts at tackling opioid abuse. He hopes that other communities in Washington will take note and develop similar programs.
On Thursday morning, the House Public Safety Committee passed House Bill 2287 establishing the diversion center as a pilot project. Before acting the panel added an amendment to support the launch of a similar-styled diversion effort in Spokane County.
Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, the bill’s author and a Snohomish County sheriff’s sergeant, said it will “be the catalyst” for a greater state investment in the fight against the effects of the opioid crisis.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story
Scott North: 425-339-3431; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snorthnews.