Gene Martin rides the bus before sunrise to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Everett. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Part 4: With help, a homeless alcoholic finds redemption

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 — Gene Martin used to work with his hands. He took pride in swinging a hammer and building houses. For a time Martin was even the boss with his own crew.

Today, at 60, the Snohomish native is rebuilding his life.

“There are a lot of corny sayings in AA, but some are right on,” Martin said. “You have to take one day at a time and do the next right thing.”

Sixteen months ago Martin’s hands shook if he went too long without a drink. The murder of his sister and a friend’s suicide led to a 15-year war with booze. Most days Martin was on the losing side.

He lost his family and job and ended up on the street, sleeping in alleys or at the Everett Gospel Mission. When he was hungry he stood outside McDonald’s hoping someone would give him a hamburger. Strangers avoided eye contact and his own family passed him without stopping. Martin panhandled so he could buy alcohol. If he didn’t make enough, he shoplifted.

“My whole survival was to drink, numb myself and pass out,” he said.

Martin wore a path from hospitals to jails and courthouses. Between September 2013 and July 2014, the city of Everett charged him 20 different times, mainly for criminal trespassing, shoplifting or urinating in public. During that same time, he spent 250 days in the county jail. He was in and out of emergency rooms. Sometimes firefighters hauled him to a hospital more than once in a single day.

“They’d sober you up and spit you out the door,” Martin said.

Then, last year, Martin ended up on a list he didn’t know existed.

People were talking quietly behind the scenes about what they could do differently to help him. They labeled Martin a “chronic utilizer,” someone who cycles through crisis-care services and the criminal justice system. He was costing taxpayers an estimated $500,000 a year.

What if the different agencies that encountered Martin came together to brainstorm a solution? What if they removed barriers that stood in the way of addressing his addiction and mental illness? What if they convinced Martin he was worth it?

An Everett prosecutor worked with Martin’s public defender. Everett firefighters and police officers joined the conversation, as did Snohomish County jail staff. The team, known as the Chronic Utilizer Alternative Response Team, or CHART, created a plan for Martin.

It included 90 days of inpatient chemical dependency treatment and transitional housing. Martin also was offered entry to the Mental Health Alternatives Program, Everett’s therapeutic misdemeanor court. The program provided him structure with weekly court hearings and also required him to seek mental health counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The answer isn’t to call police to haul people out of our sight,” Snohomish County sheriff’s Bureau Chief Tony Aston said. “We have to help people go in the right direction or the cycle never ends.”

Aston, a hard-charging cop, has spent most of his career pounding the streets, hunting down criminals. He now supervises the county jail, but also is working outside the lockup to come up with solutions that don’t involve incarceration for non-violent offenders living with mental illness or addiction. His boss, Sheriff Ty Trenary, is adamant that the jail isn’t equipped to address those issues and is leading efforts to change how the community uses the lockup.

More people living with mental illness now are housed in county jails across the nation than in inpatient treatment institutions. Mentally ill inmates, most of whom also have drug or alcohol addictions, often are incarcerated longer and, once released, are more likely to be jailed again. The cost of housing people with mental illnesses in jails is two to three times more than for other inmates, according to a 2011 Duke University Medical School study.

There also is liability. Snohomish County is being sued by the family of a mentally ill man who died of a heart attack in 2012 after a corrections officer shocked him twice with a stun gun. Everett police had arrested Bill Williams for shoplifting beer. Williams died after struggling with corrections officers trying to move him. The lawsuit accuses the county of failing to train jail staff about the proper use of force on a person exhibiting signs of mental illness.

Keaton Farris’ parents recently filed a claim against Island County after their incarcerated son died of dehydration and malnutrition.

Farris, 25, had bipolar disorder and was in crisis during the 12 days he was housed in the Coupeville jail. His family alleges that corrections officers mistreated him by withholding water and food. Farris, accused of forging a $355 check, was awaiting a bed at Western State Hospital.

“The jail is on the list for problem solving,” Trenary said. “We need long-term solutions though, and making an arrest and booking someone isn’t long-term.”

The sheriff’s position has created a ripple effect in Snohomish County and sparked conversations among politicians, police, social service agencies, business owners and neighbors. There is no single solution and a lack of resources, such as housing, limits how much can be done. However, it’s past time to try different approaches, Trenary said. That may be a tough sell.

Over the summer, exasperated Everett firefighters found a homeless, drunken man lying on a downtown sidewalk. Fire crews had interacted with him more than 100 times before that day. They drove the man to Marysville and left him under a bridge. Three of the firefighters were disciplined after their bosses found out. Some in the community criticized the reprimand.

Martin’s story is a good example of what is possible, Everett’s lead prosecutor Hil Kaman said.

Launched last year, CHART aims to cut down on repeated, expensive and avoidable interactions with people like Martin. The team is made up of representatives from Everett’s police and fire departments, and its prosecutor’s office. Also on the team are staff from Providence Regional Medical Center Everett and the county’s Human Services and Corrections divisions.

The team has identified people who put the most burden on the different systems, including the jail. The top five in Everett had a combined total of 468 days in jail in 2014. The team devises a plan for each person with an eye on addressing underlying issues, such as addiction, which contribute to criminal behavior.

“Offering someone drug treatment instead of jail time isn’t new,” Kaman said. “The difference here is that it’s a collaborative effort by the entire community of affected agencies, who decided together that they were going to do something different.”

The team says it is too early to know what kind of impact their approach is having. The county’s Human Service Division is tracking the team’s efforts and is expected to compare participants’ contacts with crisis care, police, and courts before and after the program. The goal is to reduce those interactions without shifting the burden to other jurisdictions, Kaman said.

Martin was on the top of the team’s list last year.

“People who had contact with him said, ‘Gene is such a nice guy. How could he be like this?’ People really wanted to help him,” Kaman said.

Martin was drunk last year when Everett police arrested him and took him to the emergency room. They waited at the hospital for Martin to sober up enough to be medically cleared for the jail. Arrangements were made ahead of time for the jail to lift its booking restrictions for Martin. Meanwhile the wheels were already in motion to find him a bed at an inpatient treatment center.

“Sad as it is, the jail was the only place we could get Gene detox,” Kaman said.

Then Martin was given an ultimatum: serve a year in jail for a laundry list of misdemeanors or get treatment and enter the city’s therapeutic court. Martin didn’t pass up the help.

“People kept me going long enough for me to see past my addiction,” he said. “Jail is no place to get better.”

Martin graduated from the therapeutic court program Nov. 3. He’s been sober for more than a year, the longest he’s gone without a drink in a decade. He attends early morning AA meetings almost every day and leads the meetings once a week.

Most people don’t understand what it’s like to be an alcoholic, Martin said.

“They see it as a choice, like you’re making a choice to be a worthless piece of crap,” he said. “The homeless aren’t really worthless. They’re having a rough time. People live day-to-day more than they think. I never thought I’d be in this position.”

Martin sees a counselor to address his mental health issues. It’s never been easy to talk about his feelings or the nightmares that came after finding his friend dead. “One of the things about mental illness is you feel alone in it,” he said.

Martin’s two grown daughters are part of his life again, and he lives with his oldest. He also credits strangers for not giving up on him and seeing that he was worth their time and compassion.

“I’m back on my feet because people gave me a hand up,” he said. “They hold me accountable, but they’re also helping me out.”

Everett Fire Capt. Brent Stainer often hauled a passed-out Martin to the hospital. When Martin woke up he’d find a note in his pocket from Stainer, inviting him to breakfast. Martin didn’t accept the fireman’s invitation until he was finally sober. Since then the men have struck up a friendship. They meet for lunch and talk about Martin’s future. Stainer helped Martin create a resume to find work again.

“Gene is a very skilled man. He built custom homes for years. His signature was the stained glass windows he made,” Stainer said.

The longtime firefighter invited Martin to Thanksgiving dinner and Martin invited Stainer to support him at an AA meeting. The experience, Stainer said, opened his eyes to addiction’s indiscriminate hand. There were 70 people in the room, some in suits and others with dirt under their nails.

“Gene really gets the credit for taking full advantage of the help offered to him,” Stainer said. “He’s really been the one who picked himself up.”

Martin’s public defender Laura Baird helped him find his self-respect again. He’s even friendly with Kaman, the prosecutor, who joined Baird last year to visit Martin in the Lynnwood Jail. Martin owed some time there on an old charge. It was a few days before Christmas and the lawyers wanted to make sure Martin was doing OK.

“It’s the first time I ever felt friendly toward a prosecutor in my life,” Martin said. “I probably wouldn’t invite him over for dinner but if he knocked on the door, I’d feed him.”

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

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