MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — On a winter night, a man curled up under a tarp in a parking lot.
He had been on his way to a friend’s house. He stopped walking because it was 40 degrees and his socks were soaked through.
Mountlake Terrace police officer Jeremy Perry found the sleeping man among cars outside a grocery store. Perry pulled dry socks and food from a duffel bag in the back of his patrol car. Together, they drove to a warm house where the man could stay the night.
Police departments across Snohomish County are looking for ways to reach out to people in need. In Lynnwood and Edmonds, a newly hired social worker is splitting her time between the police departments. She works alongside officers and guides people through the process of accessing shelter, drug or alcohol treatment and mental health programs.
Mountlake Terrace officers, without a social worker of their own, have equipped themselves to better provide social services.
When Perry joined the department in 2012, it wasn’t often he ran into homeless encampments.
“During the colder months, it was almost like our homeless population would completely disappear,” he said.
Most people found shelter.
Now, there are anywhere from two to eight encampments at a time, and up to a dozen people living at each, Perry said.
Last year, Perry proposed the idea of filling duffel bags with supplies that officers could carry while on patrol.
Local businesses donated supplies and raised money for protein-heavy snacks, water, blankets and stuffed animals to give children found with homeless parents. They stock bags with items that have an immediate effect, “whether it was food or something to keep warm or hygiene products that can make them feel a little bit better,” Perry said.
Informational pamphlets on housing, drug treatment and mental health programs also are shared.
The bags need to be restocked a couple of times each week, Perry said. A cubicle in the center of the police department is filled with soda, diapers and clothing.
He hopes a kind gesture might show that officers are there to help.
Earlier this year, police were called to a convenience store in town where a man was suspected of committing a minor crime. He didn’t want to give his name, but a Mountlake Terrace sergeant recognized him through his work as the homeless liaison.
The sergeant asked the man when he ate last. It had been more than a day.
The sergeant shared food from his duffel bag. The man apologized for giving the officers trouble.
“We have a job to do, but we’re also here to help you,” Perry said.
The new social worker in Lynnwood and Edmonds believes her role might open a door, making it easier for people to reach out to police.
Ashley Dawson, 33, previously worked as a social worker with the Edmonds School District for eight years. She advocated for students who were homeless.
The two positions are quite similar. She walks people through the steps to build a better life.
She got to know an Edmonds family that had been floating between motels and their car. The kids would be absent from school for 10 days at a time, Dawson said. Their phones were turned off because of unpaid bills. The parents were struggling with substance abuse.
“By empowering the kids and letting them know they cared, the parents found reasons to get better,” Dawson said.
One of the parents currently is in recovery and two of the kids have graduated from high school. Dawson assisted the family with finding an apartment, setting a budget and making goals for the future.
“Up until now, oftentimes the only places we had to refer those in need had been a hospital or a jail,” Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan said. “There’s a stark need to do a better job ensuring the services are not only available, but also doing what we can do to follow through.”
Law enforcement traditionally was designed to address a crisis as it arises, said Lynnwood Police Chief Tom Davis. A strong relationship between police and people in the community might prevent crises.
That relationship begs for a listening ear.
Starting in elementary school, Dawson served food at a soup kitchen with her family. She would cook and then visit with people while they ate.
“There is something that leads to homelessness,” she said. “A broken system, trauma, family history of addiction.”
She searches for the cause and offers people the tools to clear barriers in their way. It might take awhile, she said.
“It’s being persistent and available, and respecting that people might not be ready right away,” Dawson said.
She also is there to ease the transition after people are released from jail, which oftentimes can be a scramble.
“We’re all trying to find our place in this larger community issue,” Davis said. “Wherever we can find a place to have an impact, we need to do that.”
Caitlin Tompkins: 425-339-3192; ctompkins @heraldnet.com.