ARLINGTON — You can often find Scott Armstrong outside an entrance to the Safeway parking lot in Smokey Point.
The 23-year-old man perches with a cardboard sign, asking for spare change. He’s been spending his nights nearby, in a tent.
“My mom passed away and I didn’t have a place to stay, really,” he said. “I got introduced to drugs and it all went south from there.”
Armstrong spoke from the Suds & Duds Laundry Center near I-5, where volunteers were conducting an annual survey of the homeless population in Snohomish County. Information from the Point-in-Time Count helps local officials apply for state and federal assistance, as well as special programs for homeless veterans.
Volunteers fanned out Tuesday from sites in Everett, Arlington, Granite Falls, Monroe and Lynnwood. They worked through a standard set of questions to learn why people have become homeless. Along with basics, such as age and ethnic background, they touched on more sensitive topics, including substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence. They didn’t record full names, only initials.
They strove to look people in the eyes and strike up meaningful conversations.
“If I know somebody, I try to give them a little love,” said Paul Olson, 40, one of the volunteers.
The Iraq war veteran had just finished a survey in the laundry with a homeless man he’s met before. When finished, they hugged.
Olson himself spent a couple of months homeless on the streets of Seattle and the Eastside a few years back, until he connected with veterans housing in Everett. He roamed the Smokey Point area with Tyson Kuntz, a 24-year-old Marysville man working as a disability access coordinator with AmeriCorps.
They didn’t find much in terms of encampments off the commercial strip along 172nd Street NE, but there was evidence that people had left recently. Near one big-box store, they found two syringes loaded with liquid.
Homelessness might be more obvious in cities such as Everett or Seattle, but it’s widespread in suburban and even rural areas.
To help steer people toward better options, Arlington, Marysville and Snohomish County are in the process of hiring two new social workers to partner with police to address homelessness, drug addiction and related issues in and around the two cities. It’s similar to embedded social worker programs already in place for unincorporated south Snohomish County, Everett and Monroe.
“We’re looking to replicate some of their success — that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the exact same program,” Arlington Police Chief Jonathan Ventura said.
The north-end program could be in place in March.
Ventura has seen the area’s homeless population change. When he started working in Arlington 18 years ago, he said there were about five homeless people, “who most people in town knew.”
The chief now estimates the city’s homeless population at near 200. He suspects this year’s Point-in-Time Count won’t be able to capture the full extent of the problem.
“Our demographic is largely under 40, opioid-addicted males,” he said. “Ours is very specific.”
New to the annual survey this year were free laundry services offered in Smokey Point and Granite Falls.
Washing clothes is one of the top needs social service providers hear from homeless clients, along with food, shelter and showers.
“We decided this year, why don’t we give them all four?” said Peggy Ray, a program manager with Lutheran Community Services Northwest.
Armstrong stood in the laundry munching on a breakfast burrito, provided free by the Stick It or Stuff It food truck. He spoke of his struggles with heroin and meth.
The former Edmonds-Woodway High School student said he once worked as a landscaper in one of the Seattle area’s most-affluent enclaves. He’d like to return to that work.
“I want to get clean and go somewhere and not be around this atmosphere,” he said.
Drugs aren’t the only reason people wind up living on the streets.
“Not all of us are drug addicts,” said Jason DeVore, 25, that afternoon at the Salvation Army in Everett. “I can’t tell you how many times on a daily basis that I’m called a tweaker or a junkie … I just smoke weed.”
The Everett man said he’s been homeless off and on for a decade. He believes he’d be on track to find stable housing, if he could just find work. He’d like to wash dishes — anything — if someone would take him on.
“I’m not even picky right now,” he said.
In 2017, the Point-in-Time tally found 515 people without shelter, 462 in emergency shelters and 89 in transitional housing throughout the county. There were 66 veterans, and 313 chronically homeless individuals, ranging in age from 7 months to 76 years old.
Early numbers from this year’s count aren’t likely to be released for at least a week, said Robin Hood, a grants manager for the county’s Human Services Department. This year’s numbers include a closer look at people who are homeless now because they’re fleeing domestic violence.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald net.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.