EVERETT — The teams of social workers and sheriff’s deputies who venture into the homeless camps sprinkled around Snohomish County’s rougher edges go there in search of fleeting moments.
The teams try to convince those struggling with drug addiction and mental illness that people do care and that help is available, if only they are willing to take that first step.
But reality kicks in when somebody takes them up on the offer.
It often takes several days or longer before arrangements can be made to find space in a detox facility or at a care center.
While the details are being worked out, fingers are crossed that the person asking for help doesn’t undergo a change of heart or drop off the grid to get high again.
By late March, the county hopes to have a better approach in place.
The plan is to repurpose the county’s former work release building in downtown Everett for use as a diversion center. It will become the place where deputies working in the embedded social worker teams can immediately bring people who want help tackling opioid addiction and mental health challenges.
The county can’t arrest its way out of the problem, but there also needs to be a swift means of getting people out of situations that cause harm to themselves and the community, Sheriff Ty Trenary said.
“The idea behind this isn’t coddling or hug-a-thug,” he said. It’s about swiftly getting people help and using the proper tools to solve a complicated problem.
Closed early last year because of budget cuts, the work-release building will be repurposed to house 44 diversion beds. People who agree to go there won’t be under arrest but the center will be secure and counselors will be trained to do what they can to convince people to stay there for up to a couple of weeks. The time will be spent helping visitors get connected to the services they need.
Most brought to the diversion center are expected to be wrestling with heroin and other opioids. Plans call for the center to be staffed with people trained in emergency medicine and with those who can help clients access prescriptions to Suboxone, the buprenorphine-based compound that can help ease withdrawal and improve chances of recovery.
Over the course of a year, the diversion center could help more than 300 people begin finding their way back from the streets, said Cammy Hart-Anderson, a manager for the county’s Human Services Department.
“I think of it as a stabilization pad, a launching pad,” Hart-Anderson said of the diversion center.
Gov. Jay Inslee is seeking $500,000 in the state supplemental budget to help launch the diversion center. The Legislature also is considering bills to support the program as a pilot project.
Inslee is scheduled to visit the Everett center Thursday. The money the governor hopes to direct toward its operation is part of an additional $19.9 million he wants to spend to expand the state’s fight against opioid use by curbing the availability of drugs and increasing the availability of treatment.
“We know this is a statewide crisis. We need a statewide response to up our game,” Inslee said Monday at a news conference outlining his plan. “We are not helpless in the face of opioid abuse. We can defeat it.”
The diversion center is envisioned as a complementary approach to existing “hub-and-spoke” networks of care involving medical and social service providers. Typically clients show up at clinics and facilities within the network.
“People don’t necessarily show up at a clinic, and they don’t necessarily show up at the point at which you’re able to direct them easily to care,” said Dr. Charissa Fotinos, deputy medical director for the state Health Care Authority.
Where they often show up is jail, after they commit crimes to sustain their substance use disorder, she said.
“Diversion is the first place where people who are most desperate are likely to show up,” she said. “So it’s yet another place to reach out and be sure we can get folks to the right treatment at the right time.”
Trenary has been changing how the county uses the jail. 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. He also launched programs inside the jail to help inmates once they leave, to find addiction treatment, services and housing.
There were 90 overdose deaths in Snohomish County in 2016. Of those, 44 were considered heroin-related. Most of the others were attributed to prescription opiates, sometimes in combination with other drugs.
Part of that effort is gathering better data about the nature and scope of the problem. A recent examination of jail bookings underscores the connection between opioid use and challenges behind bars, said Shari Ireton, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office. The data found about 50 people who top the list for bookings, and 85 percent of those have history of treatment for opioid withdrawal while in the jail, Ireton said. Among that group, the top three were all in their 30s and had more than 40 arrests apiece, she said.
The diversion center would be a separate but complementary approach to other county projects targeting addiction and homelessness. Plans are moving forward to create a hub for services at the former Carnegie Library building near the jail. Work also is under way to repurpose unused space at Denney Juvenile Justice Center for an inpatient behavioral health treatment center for people living with substance abuse and mental health challenges.
The county has found a company it plans to partner with in providing services at the diversion center. It also is making a commitment that people who are brought there from the county’s unincorporated areas won’t simply be left in Everett should they opt to leave. Instead, the county will take them back to the location where they were encountered, Trenary said.
“We owe it to Everett to be a good partner,” he said.
Bills to treat the diversion center as a pilot project have been introduced by Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, and Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby. Each received a public hearing last week.
The chairman of the House Public Safety Committee endorsed the idea as a means of getting people off drugs, into housing and needed treatment, and out of a life of committing crimes.
This is a “critical” intercept of law enforcement and social services, said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, the committee chairman. “I’m hoping what you are able to prove is this will work statewide,” he told county officials Jan. 8.
The next day, the ranking Democrat and Republican on the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee expressed some reservations.
Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, the committee chairwoman, said it’s unclear if the pilot project would make a difference in keeping homeless people out of the criminal justice system or if it is “one of many examples” of lawmakers seeking funding for a well-meaning undertaking in their district.
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, said he knows other communities are developing, and deploying, efforts that unite law enforcement and social services.
“I just don’t know how unique that program is,” he said. “I think I need a little more convincing.”
Scott North: 425-339-3431; email@example.com. Twitter: @snorthnews.