By Erin Freeman | Lynnwood Times Staff
In Snohomish County, social workers and law enforcement have been tag-teaming; resolving the needs of vulnerable populations since 2015, aiming to reduce homelessness and the obstacles that persist for those experiencing it.
A team of law enforcement officers and embedded social workers with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office work together identifying and connecting with homeless and vulnerable populations throughout Snohomish County. Their outreach intends to break the cycle of homelessness, mental health, and/or chemical dependency throughout the county.
“There was that thought of, how can we affect this, how can we help cut down the number of people living in that situation?” said Deputy Sheriff Lars Teigen. “Both for the overall society side of resolving the community consequences of those issues, and also from the individual side of getting that person out of their situation.”
Founded in 2015, the Office of Neighborhoods began as a part of the city of Everett’s safe street initiative, a multi-agency task force comprised of different organizations and businesses within the community, working to develop creative and innovative solutions to homelessness throughout the county. Embedding social workers with law enforcement was one strategy discussed, moving the county to start a pilot program within the city, introducing social workers within the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
Lauren Rainbow, a Law Enforcement Social Worker, one of the two original social workers of the program, continues to work with the Office of Neighborhoods, reflecting that while similar jurisdictions had created similar programs, this program model was a first of its kind. Since 2015, the office has grown, merging with three cities: Monroe, Arlington, and Marysville. The team has developed, expanding to five embedded social workers and three sheriff deputies.
“There was no blueprint for this,” said Rainbow. “But it’s become and been successful.”
The Office of Neighborhoods is particularly concentrated on assisting the homeless population experiencing substance abuse, says Deputy Sheriff/Drive Rescue Brian Cassady, explaining that recidivism, or repeated criminal offenses, within this population are high.
“We were looking at the same people encountering law enforcement and being taken to jail for minor offenses,” added Rainbow. “We were like what can we do that’s different?
Focusing on assisting homeless individuals locate and navigate social and health services, the team assesses an individual’s needs, possibly administering housing vouchers or paving the way towards addiction treatment.
“The nice thing about this program is that it is always evolving, so when needs shift in the community, we shift right with it,” said Law Enforcement Social Worker Elisa Delgado.
They also work closely with the Diversion Center in Everett, where the Office of Neighborhood’s deputies and social workers introduce homeless adults with substance use disorders and other behavioral health issues to its short-term placement and shelter, diverting them away from incarceration and toward treatment.
The access to services that the Office of Neighborhoods has introduced to the vulnerable population has changed lives, says Rainbow, with many of their clients having broken the cycles of their homelessness and addiction.
“We’ve helped quite a few people,” said Rainbow. “We’ve had people living on the streets and now they’re in their own apartments, reunited with their children, working…some have gone back to continue their education.”
The team’s efforts to break down barriers have inspired many of their clients to do the same. Some now are even staff members at the Diversion Center, with one in particular moving on to receive their Master’s in Social Work from the University of Washington.
“No matter what your views on addiction are… no matter where you are, this program makes sense,” said Delgado. “The old way of arresting people is a revolving door, nobody gets help. The old way wasn’t working, this program helps people, and it helps the community.”