MONROE — Monroe police officer Justin Springer and Snohomish County social worker Elisa Delgado walk through densely wooded trails on a hill above the Walmart in town.
It’s a sunny, brisk fall day in early October. They’re hunting for homeless encampments. Secluded areas like this are perfect for those looking to hide.
Within the trees on the state Department of Transportation land, old dirt ramps tell of a time when children rode bikes here, before the woods became host to Monroe’s homeless population.
“These were here when I was a kid,” said Springer, a Monroe native in his early 40s.
After a deeper sweep, all they find are piles of clothes and litter. Earlier in the week they’d cited a large group that had been camping in the area for trespassing.
“For a long time they were able to stay up here quiet, under the radar,” Springer said.
Delgado and Springer make up Monroe’s Community Outreach Team, a program launched in early 2016 to better connect Monroe’s homeless populations with the help they need.
Monroe’s effort mirrors other teams operating in the county, combating a seemingly intractable homelessness and drug problem frustrating communities across the country.
Delgado joined the team in April 2017. She spends a lot of her time on the phone talking with clients she’s built relationships with, guiding them through insurance coverage or housing options.
Springer joined the outreach team on top of serving as a resource officer for the Monroe School District. Now that classes are in session, he has less time to patrol town for camps.
Twice a week, the two scour the usual spots, take people to appointments or connect them with the county’s Diversion Center, a 44-bed temporary shelter.
Since August 2018, the team has found housing for 13 people, scheduled in-patient treatment for 20 and taken at least 14 to the Diversion Center.
Businesses are seeking help
As Springer and Delgado drive through town, they also stop at businesses and spots where the homeless gather to use drugs or sleep, often in plain sight.
Behind one storefront, a walled-off dumpster is a hot spot for drug use. Syringes and drug paraphernalia litter the ground.
At another store, people have been using exterior outlets to charge cell phones and someone broke into a shed to steal supplies. In bushes behind the store, someone’s been using cardboard boxes as a mattress. There’s even a wood stove. Business owners are starting to take notice and ask the team for help.
New lights and cameras installed at a vacant grocery store now deter break-ins and people sleeping under awnings.
In other areas, cutting grass or thinning bushes provides visibility that would otherwise be obscured.
Additionally, stores can sign a form that allows police to quickly issue trespassing notices to people without requiring businesses owners to sign a complaint each time.
Despite growing awareness of the problem, Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas said it’s hard to show people that things are getting better in this city of 19,000 residents.
In Monroe, as elsewhere, street drugs and over-the-counter narcotics are factors in people winding up on the street. DEA data obtained by the Washington Post shows there were enough opioids prescribed between 2006 and 2012 in Monroe for every resident to have an annual supply of 99 pills, the sixth-highest rate in the county.
In a recent countywide survey, Monroe residents were more likely than any other in the county to say opioids were a crisis in their community.
Springer said that might be because Monroe isn’t turning a blind eye to the problem.
“No matter where you go, you’re going to find opioids,” Delgado said.
In the parks
The city’s approach to homelessness doesn’t stop with the outreach team.
Since March 2017, workers with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department have made weekly trips to Al Borlin and Lake Tye parks to trek through the nearly 200 acres to clean up camps cleared by police.
In its first year, crews cleaned up 21 camps. The number rose to 28 in 2018.
So far this year, the team has discarded trash from 45 camps.
In total, they’ve hauled more than 550 bags of trash out of Monroe parks, including needles, tin foil with drug residue and other paraphernalia.
“We’d like to be doing other things in our parks,” Parks director Mike Farrell said. “When we’re here, we’re not doing other maintenance work of our other facilities.”
When workers first started looking for the camps, they found structures where people had dug, cut down trees and assembled large living spaces.
“You’d be surprised how resourceful some people are,” Farrell said.
Ten years ago, he said, homeless camps in parks weren’t a problem.
As the seasons change, Al Borlin Park becomes a dangerous place to live. The Skykomish River that runs nearby floods easily and quickly.
“I don’t know if these people realize they’re putting themselves and others in danger by being in the parks during that time when you can get a storm,” Farrell said.
At City Hall across town, Mayor Thomas knows the exact moment he realized the city had to change its approach to homelessness.
It was during the public comment portion of a city council meeting June 16, 2015, a few weeks after city staff cleared a large homeless encampment in Al Borlin Park. A homeless man who had built and occupied the camp addressed the dais with one demand. He wanted “his (expletive) stuff back.”
After the meeting, a local business owner offered the man a job, which he declined.
“Getting to work at 11 a.m. was too early for him,” Thomas said.
By January 2016, unlawful camping in parks, car prowling and panhandling had gotten worse.
For Thomas, the difficulty doesn’t come with people who are homeless because of poverty, mental health, drugs or domestic violence. It’s the people who refuse help.
So he called a meeting with his leadership team. They outlined a new approach to fight chronic homelessness using the outreach team and weekly park sweeps.
“Our overriding goal is there should never be a wait list for someone who wants help today, and no one should ever be left on the street who needs help,” Thomas said.
Earlier this year, he launched a Homeless Policy Advisory Committee, a group of business owners, nonprofit leaders, residents and formerly homeless people. The committee is expected to give a series of recommendations to the City Council in the coming months.
The next steps in fighting chronic homelessness need to be taken in Olympia, Thomas said.
“We need changes in state law that allow cities everywhere to get people off the streets and get them the help they need, whether that’s incarceration or some other facility,” he said.
Officer Springer said one potential policy change could be government-mandated treatment for certain chronic homeless people who refuse services.
Until then, Springer and Thomas said they’ll continue to enforce the law.
“To try to get people off the street that should be getting help, sometimes that includes going to jail or prison,” Thomas said.
Before their patrol through Monroe, Delgado and Springer had started their morning at the back of the county jail in Everett.
Delgado waited while Springer went inside to retrieve two homeless Monroe men in their mid-20s booked on drug charges, Oliver Gerds and Shane Collins.
Collins was being released to make the short journey to the county Diversion Center on the same block. There, Delgado planned to get him checked in with toiletries and a new set of clothes. He’ll go through a medical examination and be paired with a social worker who will guide him through his road to treatment and self-sufficiency.
Gerds is making a much longer trip.
After seeing Collins off, the three got in Springer’s truck and headed to Everett Station, where Gerds boarded a bus for eastern Washington.
He’s out of custody on a judge’s temporary release order, something made possible by the relationships Delgado has built with the local court. He’s going to an in-patient drug treatment center in Spokane.
When they arrived at the station, Delgado headed to the counter to get Gerds’ ticket.
Springer bought him a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich while they waited for the bus to board. When they got to talking, they realized they’ve most likely met before — at Monroe High School while Gerds was a student and Springer the resource officer.
Gerds nodded along and enjoyed his breakfast while Springer walked him through the conditions of his release.
Delgado returned with Gerds’ ticket and the three headed for the bus. Once Gerds boarded, Delgado and Springer waited at the curb for the bus to drive off. Because it’s a temporary release order, they had to watch the bus leave the station.
Someone from the addiction center needed to wait for Gerds’ arrival in Spokane. When his treatment is over, the outreach team will send him a return ticket.
When that day comes, Delgado and Springer will be back at the station to pick him up.