SMOKEY POINT — Two social workers are now paired up with police in Marysville and Arlington, bringing to north Snohomish County a sheriff’s office program that helps homeless people to get sober, to get off the streets and to start rebuilding their lives.
On Thursday morning Marysville officer Mike Buell stepped over dirty pillows, discarded pink underwear and scattered drug needles on the muddy, rain-soaked trails in the woods north of 172nd Street NE. Behind him hiked Arlington police officer Ken Thomas and the embedded social workers — Rochelle Long, of Marysville, and Britney Sutton, of Arlington — who carried backpacks heavy with supplies.
Wadded clothes and debris filled the first tent they found, unzipped to the falling rain. No one was home. They skirted past piles of trash until they hit another camp, draped in brown tarp.
“Hey!” Buell shouted. “Anybody in the tent? Hey, hi! Who we got in there?”
A man answered from under the tarp. He and his girlfriend lived there, he said. They didn’t want to stay here in the woods. Rain was ponding feet away in the underbrush.
“Detox, rehab, housing? All paid for? You guys interested in that?” Buell asked.
“Of course we are,” the man said.
“You guys want to come out of the tent and talk to us?”
Smokey Point is in a kind of Bermuda Triangle: part Arlington, part Marysville and part unincorporated Snohomish County. That complicates how the cities and the county tackle homeless problems in the woods behind apartments and big box stores. Any solution would have to be coordinated.
“When one of us would crack down in force, people would just slip over to the other side, and it would send the problem to the next city,” Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert said. “I’m glad we no longer have that hamster wheel of sending people around.”
The team of four started working together this week as the north unit of the sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods. Their first task is searching for people who will accept their offer of free services — in the woods, in jail, or wherever they might be. Some don’t want help. For those who do, many don’t have phones, and following through is a problem. That’s one thing deputies found out fast when the program began in south Snohomish County in 2015.
“We learned very early on that we’ve got to be the ones to literally rattle the tent and say, ‘Hey, wake up, remember it’s your appointment this morning,’” sheriff’s Sgt. Ian Huri said. “For lack of a better term, there’s a lot of hand-holding.”
Huri oversees the program. It has expanded to five social workers, four deputies and three police officers in three cities: Arlington, Marysville, Monroe. Police serve as uniformed security on the social workers’ visits to the camps. The officers still have power to make arrests, but their focus is on helping.
According to the sheriff’s office, the program countywide has helped 265 people get into detox programs and 165 people into housing.
The social workers’ salaries are paid for through a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax that funds public health in the county. Their entire job is dedicated to helping the homeless population.
At a press conference Thursday morning to celebrate the expanding program, County Councilman Nate Nehring emphasized that it isn’t about being soft on drugs.
“We will absolutely not tolerate, and we will certainly not enable, a lifestyle of heroin and opioid abuse, of committing property crimes and of destroying neighborhoods in our communities,” Nehring said in a prepared statement.
The statement came one day after the council passed a new local law pushed by Nehring. It gives the sheriff’s office more ways to deal with derelict properties, when drug use and prostitution run rampant. Sheriff Ty Trenary backed the ordinance. He also views the drug problem as a public health issue — and his beliefs on how to deal with homelessness have shifted since his younger days, he said.
“As a community cop,” the sheriff said, “I would go into a community that was having a bunch of problems, and I would solve it by identifying who the problem makers were, arresting them and — problem solved, right? What we’ve learned is that in many cases we have got to develop a trust, because we’re going into camps and dealing with people who don’t necessarily see us as saviors.”
Now the sheriff’s office aims to fight drug-related crime at its root, rather than always reacting to the burglaries, thefts and assaults afterward. Often it’s the same offenders. According to the sheriff, analysts found dozens of people in the county who had been arrested more than 30 times this decade. Of those, 45 of 53 were battling a heroin addiction.
Other local police departments are buying in to the new approach.
“Traditionally, law enforcement has been used as a hammer,” Arlington Police Chief Jonathan Ventura said. “And as you know, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
At the camp off 172nd, the young woman in the tent reluctantly pulled open the door to talk with the social workers. She asked Long and Sutton if they could get her into treatment for opioids.
“Yes,” they said, if it’s a Suboxone program. But probably not a program with methadone. At the end of their talk, almost as an afterthought, Long asked the woman if she had shoes. She answered that she just had flip-flops. They told her they’d get her a pair of real shoes.
“The beauty of this team,” Sutton said, “is that we’ll meet you anywhere.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; email@example.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.