When past practices seem to be having little effect in resolving a crisis, it’s necessary to step back and consider other — often unconventional — approaches.
It’s what’s needed on several fronts to confront a local, statewide and national crisis with heroin and other opioids.
The crisis is especially acute in Snohomish County. While the county accounts for about 10 percent of the state’s population, the county suffered about 18 percent of the state’s deaths by heroin overdose, Sheriff Ty Trenary told the House Public Safety Committee earlier this month in Olympia. Between 2011 and 2016, opioid overdoes deaths were more than double that of traffic fatalities in the county.
The Snohomish Health District’s point-in-time count last year, between July 17 and 23, reported 37 overdoses from opioids, three of which were fatal. But the same report pointed to some hope of reversing the crisis; 24 lives were saved because of the wider availability of naloxone, also known as Narcan, which can reverse the deadly effects of an overdose.
Lives are being saved. Now we need to work to turn those lives around.
Last Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee, was in Everett to tour a new 44-bed diversion center where those suffering from addiction and/or mental health problems can be housed for 15 to 90 days, while waiting for placement with other treatment programs, housing and other services.
The diversion center, scheduled to open in March and housed in a now-closed county work-release center, will provide short-term housing and wrap-around services, including medically assisted treatment such as suboxone, mental health counseling, assistance to enroll in Medicaid and other support. The center, which will be staffed around the clock, is intended to serve about 300 people a year.
Cities throughout the county have reported success with teams of law enforcement officers and social workers contacting residents of homeless encampments who are open to treatment. But often there’s a waiting list for beds in treatment programs, and contact with these people can be lost during that wait. The diversion center should provide more stability for those who are ready for treatment.
During his visit, Inslee referred to the diversion center as “genius on the streets,” and he’s backed up that enthusiasm with funding in his budget. But the Legislature has a part to play as well through legislation drafted by Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, who works as a deputy sheriff in Snohomish County and is in daily contact with people who need help to free themselves from addiction.
Hayes’ legislation, House Bill 2287, would make the division center in Everett, as well as one in Spokane, eligible for grant funding from the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, and views the two centers as pilot projects that could serve as models for such centers elsewhere in the state.
Beyond the two-year state grant, Snohomish County has committed to a third year of funding for the center, providing three years of data to study its effectiveness.
That data, Hayes told his colleagues on the House Public Safety Committee last week, will be key to showing whether the approach is effective, “to prove that a program like this can get people into detox and treatment and connected with housing and other services.”
Placement in the diversion centers would be prioritized for those referred by law enforcement who are suspected of nonviolent crimes that feed their addictions or for behavioral health issues; those referred by social workers teamed with law enforcement and waiting for residential treatment programs or inpatient treatment; and those released from jail and working with programs for housing and other needs.
Trenary, during his testimony to lawmakers earlier this month, said the teams of deputies and social workers have helped more than 100 people in the past year and a half, an effort that has reduced recidivism by half among that population. It’s an investment that is saving lives, but can also reduce crime and save money for the county and others.
“We want to capitalize on what we’ve learned,” Trenary said, “by repurposing an existing facility to try to demonstrate that maybe there is hope for a solution.”
Hayes’ bill, voted out of committee last week, 11-0, deserves approval by the full House as does companion legislation in the Senate.