Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary oversees the county's jail. He is adamant that more needs to be done to address mental illness, drug-addiction and homelessness that doesn't involve incarceration. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Part 2: A sheriff refuses to ‘warehouse the mentally ill’

What Jail Can’t Cure
Part 1: The justice system fails Keaton Farris
Part 2: A sheriff refuses to ‘warehouse the mentally ill’
Part 3: Cops and social workers team up on the streets
Part 4: With help, a homeless alcoholic finds redemption

EVERETT — Gary Watts owns an auto repair shop on Smith Avenue a block from the Everett Gospel Mission. He’s been there since 1992, shortly before the shelter opened. Back then the location seemed ideal, just off Broadway, easy for customers to find with the garage’s sign visible from the freeway.

“It hasn’t worked out to be a safe area,” Watts said. “It’s become a gathering place for heroin addicts, alcoholics and those people who have chosen a street life.”

Every morning his employees walk the shop’s perimeter, checking for used hypodermic needles. Watts warns women not to drop their cars off after dark anymore. Thieves have dashed into the garage’s open bay doors making off with tools. Employees call police weekly to report drug deals, assaults and acts of prostitution.

Watts can’t ignore Snohomish County’s homeless or those living on the margins because of inadequate mental health care or lack of resources to treat addiction. The mission down the street offers food and shelter to some of those folks. Watts says the area also has become a magnet for drug dealers and other criminals who prey on easy targets.

With his livelihood at stake, Watts is vocal about what he says is a public safety and health crisis. More needs to be done to make the city less appealing to drug dealers, addicts and the homeless who aren’t willing to accept the social services offered to them, Watts said. He supports Everett’s new ordinance to crack down on aggressive panhandling.

“The government needs to focus on public safety and public health,” he said. “The city is failing us if we don’t have a safe place to live and work.”

Watts is part of an ongoing conversation across the county to address some tough issues that have come into sharper focus since Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary narrowed the doors at the jail. It’s time to fix broken systems that rely on the jail to keep some populations out of sight, Trenary said.

“Law enforcement has been a catch-all solution for too long,” the sheriff said. Heroin addiction and mental illness are not just law enforcement problems, he said.

The state puts the burden on communities but “it’s high time the state get back in the game of addressing mental illness. We shouldn’t be spending money to warehouse the mentally ill” in the county jail, Trenary said.

Incarceration also isn’t the answer to tackle homelessness, the sheriff said.

Trenary may seem an unlikely advocate for reforming health care and social services. He’s been a cop for more than 20 years. He was appointed sheriff in 2013 after John Lovick left to become the county executive. With the job Trenary inherited a jail with serious problems, namely a series of inmate deaths.

Trenary made changes, including improving medical care. Similar reforms are underway in Island County after the April death of Keaton Farris, a mentally ill inmate who died of dehydration and malnutrition.

Trenary also closely examined who was coming through the jail’s doors.

Roughly four out of every 10 people booked have histories of addiction, mental illness or both. Trenary imposed mandatory booking restrictions to limit the number of inmates jailed for non-violent offenses. Prior to the change, about 40 percent of the jail population was there for misdemeanors. Today, that number is around 30 percent. The sheriff is convinced that taxpayers’ money could be better spent trying to keep people out of the criminal justice system.

For two years Trenary has found himself invested in work that has little to do with traditional law enforcement. He’s opened up the jail to allow social workers inside to sign up inmates for public health care insurance so they can get mental health treatment. He’s backed efforts to connect mentally ill inmates to resources before they leave. He’s provided Western State Hospital psychologists an office in the jail to reduce the wait for competency evaluations. The sheriff’s made his case to state lawmakers, all the way up to the governor. Trenary also joined law enforcement leaders across the country exploring ways to intervene before people hit the jail.

“Even if the jail takes (everyone), there is still a bigger issue,” Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman said. “There is still a revolving door and officers are dealing with the same people with no end in sight.”

A large chunk of Everett’s police resources are being consumed by a small percentage of people, often those lying on sidewalks, loitering downtown or panhandling outside businesses.

“They have become the face of the homeless,” Templeman said.

The Everett Police Department and sheriff’s office recently began a one-year pilot program that teams cops up with social workers. A county social worker is assigned to the sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods and a second one is working with Everett’s downtown patrol unit.

The social workers accompany officers to homeless camps and on city streets, helping plug people into the county’s social services network.

Officers from both departments went to Santa Monica, California to observe that city’s homeless community court. The county also sent two employees from its Human Service’s Division.

“Historically we investigate (and) arrest and the criminal justice system takes over,” Everett police Capt. John DeRousse said. “Because of a change in culture and jail restrictions we had to look at alternatives and making partnerships.”

Trenary recently disbanded his school services unit to add two more deputies to the social worker program. In Everett, Mayor Ray Stephanson proposed spending $1 million to hire more social workers and move officers to the unit. Last year he convened a task force that generated a list of recommendations to address homelessness, addiction and mental illness.

A shortage of resources makes the work challenging. There isn’t enough affordable housing that accepts people with addictions and scrapes with the law. Across the state and close to home there continues to be a shortage of psychiatric and detox beds.

It costs about $4,000 a month to house a drug-addicted inmate in the county jail and $6,100 a month for a mentally ill inmate, Trenary said.

“Putting the resources on the front end is going to save money and I think it’s going to get better results,” the sheriff said.

There’s complexity, however, that can’t be overlooked. Even as Everett was hiring a social worker, police officers in July rounded up more than a dozen homeless people near the men’s shelter and shipped them to the Yakima jail. The Snohomish County Jail wouldn’t take them because their offenses were non-violent and many were drug addicts. They were arrested for trespassing, unlawful camping and possessing drug paraphernalia.

Everett police say they gave them multiple chances over months and offered services but officers needed to take enforcement action. The sweep came after business owners showed up at council meetings, demanding results.

There is a segment of the population that needs to go to jail, DeRousse said. Police also arrested suspects in the area for robberies and assaults on other homeless people. Incarceration can’t be completely off the table.

Yet, social service agencies say it’s not as simple as offering someone a place to stay for the night or access to health care.

Often people have been traumatized over and over again, said Anji Jorstad, the county’s supervisor of community mental health programs.

“Their connection to reality is tenuous. It takes time to meet people where they’re at. It takes time to build trust,” she said.

It can be an approach that doesn’t sit well with weary neighbors and business owners who want immediate results.

Watts, the longtime Everett business owner, said the city needs tougher ordinances to reduce street crimes. Last month the city council added jail time as a possible punishment for aggressive panhandling. It’s a move that drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Watts said the city should send a clear message that it’s not going to tolerate criminals who make people feel unsafe.

“Until we get the drug dealers off the streets, no social services are going to work,” Watts said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463, hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley

What Jail Can’t Cure
Part 1: The justice system fails Keaton Farris
Part 2: A sheriff refuses to ‘warehouse the mentally ill’
Part 3: Cops and social workers team up on the streets
Part 4: With help, a homeless alcoholic finds redemption

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