Police, social services team up in new effort to help the homeless

EVERETT — It was more a social call than anything else.

Teams of police officers and social workers spent their Thursday morning along the Snohomish River dropping in on homeless camps.

They didn’t detain or arrest anyone, but did warn of that possibility down the road.

Mainly, they explained it is time to think about moving on or, preferably, getting some help to make a fresh start.

Nearby, big machines scooped and flattened earth where a 190-townhouse development is going in. Plans also call for more than 200 single-family homes to the south.

That means traditional spots to pitch a tent are disappearing on and beyond the former Eclipse Lumber Mill lumber mill site east of I-5. The riverbank denizens find refuge along ribbons of greenbelt, burrowing in among the horsetails, alders and brambles.

The coordination between police and social service agencies and nonprofits is a new approach to an age-old challenge.

“We are changing our culture. Ten years ago, officers would have thought, ‘We are the police and we make arrests. That’s what we do,’ ” said Everett police Capt. John DeRousse. “This is about putting our heads together and saying: ‘How can we deal with this issue?’ ”

It can be complex and vexing.

DeRousse knows these people are living with addictions, mental health problems and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the same time, there are reports of assaults, vandalism and property crimes that must be addressed, he said.

Some camps were littered with discarded heroin needles, stripped-down children’s bicycles and runaway shopping carts.

Most of the homeless people they encountered Thursday were willing to sit down in folding chairs and provide information to social workers who’re trying to help them find stable surroundings. How far they pursue help is up to them. It can be a series of fits and starts.

For those willing to seek it, assistance is there for the asking.

Those who do not can expect misdemeanor citations for illegal camping and a day in court. Part of the larger strategy has been to work with the city prosecutor’s office to ask that offenders be ordered to get treatment for their addictions.

Thursday’s expeditions into the brush provided several examples of the challenge ahead.

Everett police Sgt. Mike Braley encountered a tall 32-year-old man with a long bushy goatee. He was pushing a bike along a trail.

Braley and John Hull, the men’s shelter director for the Everett Gospel Mission, explained to the man that the campsites hugging the river bank won’t be a housing option much longer.

“No disrespect,” the man said. “I just don’t feel like talking right now.”

The man in long shorts and black socks was told that he could tap into the social services when he is ready to get off the street.

“People don’t know what’s best for me,” the man said. “Only God does. That’s what’s going on.”

There also was a woman wearing a red headband. She’s 24, and told a social service worker that she’s a heroin user who has been on the street since she was 17. Her eyes closed often and her head bobbed occasionally in a narcotic doze.

Others were more conversational and receptive.

One woman with a dog named Yogi kept a clean campsite. She’s worked as a flagger, but is now without a job.

Rita Jo Donovan, a housing supervisor with Catholic Community Services, knows that making inroads and building rapport can take time. She appreciates the chance to work with the police and other agencies.

“It’s a very different approach,” she said.

DeRousse knows there won’t be a quick fix.

“There is a lot of trust-building between the agencies and police and these people we are working with,” he said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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