Homeless given a chance to change their lives around (slide show)

LAKEWOOD – Marysville officer Mike Buell and Arlington officer Ken Thomas with the newly formed North County Office of Neighborhoods Unit just finished talking to a man and woman at a homeless camp.

“We got them set up with access and directions to the Arlington resource center, and will set up some times to meet up,” Buell said.

“Mike and I and the team will get them figured out,” Thomas added, the team referring to the two embedded social workers who round out the unit that is building rapport with local homeless people.

“We’ll find out first how committed they actually are, get them coffee and a meal, and we’ll engage them. That’s the biggest thing….”

Thomas interjected, “.and trust. Trust.”

Buell agreed. “…Yeah, building that trust. Once we do that, if they keep showing up to meet, we have a good chance of getting them helped and back on the right track in their lives.”

The Arlington Community Resource Center over the past four years has helped the Stillaguamish Valley community rebuild and recover in the aftermath of Oso slide, and that work will continue. But now it’s preparing for its next calling.

“The resource center in a very short time has matured into a valuable community organization,” said Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert, who also serves on the center’s advisory board. “Now with the embedded social worker program, the center will become a hub of services that it’s supposed to be.”

The center is embracing the new challenge. “It has been an interesting evolution, and I think at this point in time we recognize that we’re arriving sooner into our next purpose,” said Katherine Jordan, director of Family Services with Lutheran Community Services Northwest.

The center has already built relationships with disenfranchised local residents who are living in the woods, in cars or on the streets who are homeless, dealing with drug addiction or mental illness.

As a service hub, the center won’t only take on a heightened role working with the homeless, police-embedded social workers and other first responders. They will also be a central point for the many social services provided through myriad community organizations, nonprofits and service agencies who all deal with helping the homeless, whether it’s through housing, food or other assistance.

Housing navigators through the center over the last six months found temporary or permanent shelter and wraparound services for 121 men, women and children, Tolbert said.

The mayor said the center and various groups plan to meet three times a year to collaborate and strategize on ways to provide the shortest navigation path for people who need help, and the quickest referrals and assessments possible.

Collective action work such as this also has a better opportunity to receive grant money from large funding organizations.

That’s good news to the police-embedded social worker teams and couldn’t come at a better time.

On the day of the north county unit’s visit, the encampment they visited looked like any spot where a few friends camped together – except it was hit by a windstorm. It’s one of dozens of homeless camps in Arlington and Marysville. Ironically, it’s not far from Twin Lakes Landing, a housing development for the poor.

To get there, just follow a trail, one that you might hike through the woods on any outing. But on the way trash can be seen all over. Branches were placed against one tree with a blanket over it, resembling a form of teepee. A twin mattress has been placed over a creek for passage. In the encampment there is some makeshift housing. But in another part there are two huge, almost-new tents.

At another camp not far away, foil and needles lie on a dirt path. There is a one-person tent and a two-person tent with a brown tarp toss over it to keep it out of the rain, which there has been a lot of lately. In the middle where there might usually be a fire pit are piles and piles of stuff – coolers, socks, wipes, cereal, blankets, pillows, sleeping bags – even a pack of Camels.

Buell, who is teamed with social worker Rochelle Long, approaches a tent to see if anyone is inside.

He always uses his first name, he said. When he gets an answer, he asks on a scale of 1 to 10 how badly do you want to get off the streets. He explains he and Long are part of a new program to get help for homeless – detox, treatment and free housing.

“Sir, we want to help you get off the streets and get healthy,” Buell said. The Stillaguamish methadone clinic just opened not far away, so will play an important role in helping those individuals, as may the Smokey Point Behavioral Hospital.

They find out Daniel’s girlfriend inside also would like help. Buell offers them coffee and a meal. Eventually, they decide not to go now, but maybe later. The offer only lasts so long, officers caution.

“We come through first,” Thomas said. “Behind us comes the hammer, and the hammer is when we make an arrest, and issue citations for trespassing.”

Britney Sutton is teamed up with Thomas representing Arlington. Her love of social work made the job an appealing prospect. “It’s a desire to make the world a better place for everybody,” Sutton said. “It’s also understanding that things aren’t always black and white. It’s about encompassing the gray areas. These people need help, too.”

Prior to the new job, Sutton worked as an individual psychotherapist at Compass Health, conducting one-on-one therapy and assessments with the mentally ill, and running support groups. “But I was inside all day,” Sutton said. “Outside, this is a welcome change of pace.”

Long just started the job the same time as Sutton. She never has done this kind of work before. Her previous job was working in schools. But she’s been looking for this type of opportunity for some time. Long said working with police she feels she can make a big difference in the lives of homeless people by getting them the help they need. She said it’s been great helping to get the program started and “make it come alive.”

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