EVERETT — For years, when their help was needed, social workers from the Office of Neighborhoods would ride in the back of a deputy’s patrol car to visit local homeless camps.
Once an accompanying deputy ensured their safety, the cops would take a step back — and the social workers would step forward.
Then the office was disbanded for about eight months, as the sheriff’s office reallocated those deputies. The patrol unit was stretched thin as the sheriff’s office struggled to keep pace with hiring. It left the social workers without a police escort to engage with people in high-risk areas.
In February, Sheriff Adam Fortney and County Executive Dave Somers reinstated the program and combined it with the Snohomish County Outreach Team, aka SCOUT, a team of seven social workers that formed during the hiatus. It essentially restored the model that was in place from 2015 to 2022.
“I’ve always appreciated a close working relationship with local law enforcement, because often those engaged in law enforcement efforts are people who may have a mental health need,” said the county Human Services’ behavioral health supervisor Cammy Hart-Anderson.
Hart-Anderson supervises SCOUT, the team aimed at providing social services to people without shelter, as well as those struggling with substance abuse or behavioral health issues. In 2022, the group expanded its outreach to anyone in need of social services, regardless of housing status.
“Some of the living situations people are in are risky,” Hart-Anderson said. “One of the big values to having law enforcement be in partner with us again is that they help us go into those areas and do outreach with individuals who may not be at that point where they’re ready to independently call and meet us somewhere else.”
Somers and Fortney officially combined the programs last month.
“We know that a well trained social worker when partnering with a deputy can help a broader cross section of people to ensure they get any needed assistance,” Fortney said in a press release.
If a person has “outstanding legal issues,” deputies can book them into the Snohomish County Jail, though the decision on whether to make an arrest can be made by the Office of Neighborhoods sergeant in consultation with SCOUT.
The work doesn’t stop with one visit to an encampment — as some homeless folks do not accept help right away. SCOUT members often return without law enforcement present to build rapport. Those wanting help can be taken to Snohomish County’s Diversion Center, a 44-bed placement facility for homeless adults with behavioral health issues. Here, SCOUT members can help them start the rehabilitation process.
In 2021, patrols and social workers from the Office of Neighborhoods worked with 1,027 new clients, securing housing for 177 people, scheduling 447 assessments for those with substance abuse disorders, and getting 435 people both inpatient and outpatient treatment, sheriff’s spokesperson Courtney O’Keefe said.
In the Snohomish County 2023 budget, the sheriff’s office received $3.52 million to fill staff vacancies. Two deputies led by Sgt. James Chelin will serve Office of Neighborhoods duties and are hoping to expand when staffing allows. The office deployed three deputies and one sergeant prior to the hiatus.
Chelin deferred any comment on the reinstated program to O’Keefe.
Fortney shut down the program due to staffing shortages in June 2022, at a time law enforcement leaders were sounding the alarm about an anecdotal increase in crime.
A snapshot of homelessness from February 2022 found 1,184 people were without reliable shelter in Snohomish County, many of whom have experienced domestic violence, substance abuse or severe mental illness. Alessandra Durham, chief of staff for Somers, is confident the reinstated Office of Neighborhoods will help.
“It really allows us to holistically address these challenges,” Durham said. “Getting people into much-needed services, but also ensuring the broader community has a healthier, safer environment to live, work and play in.”
Maya Tizon: 425-339-3434; email@example.com, Twitter: @mayatizon.
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