ARLINGTON – On the one-year anniversary of Arlington’s revolutionary outreach program pairing police and social workers in the struggle to reverse homelessness and the opioid crisis, the results so far are life-changing.
Since the police’s Community Outreach Team launched in April 2018, team members have tallied 839 contacts with local transients, connected 200 of them with assessments and treatment, given 464 rides to appointments in the town of just under 20,000, and gotten 38 of them into short-term housing.
“Those are pretty phenomenal results; that’s a lot of contacts,” Police Chief Jonathan Ventura said at the Stillaguamish Valley Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday during Police Week in the Byrnes Performing Arts Center.
The benefits of the team are showing up in lower violent crime rates.
In 2017, assaults were down 7% from 180 to 166, while robberies increased 6% from 22 to 24. In 2018, with the Community Outreach Team in the field, assaults fell 19% and robberies 38%.
Also, police last year responded to 20% fewer calls to Walmart – 956, down from 1,186 in 2017. Walmart is by far the most visited business by police, and centered in a district that has drawn more than its share of homeless, panhandlers and vagrants.
Arlington’s team of veteran officer Ken Thomas and social worker Britney Sutton are part of a larger north Snohomish County Community Outreach Team that includes similar teams in Marysville and the Sheriff’s Office working together in what has started out as a two-year demonstration project.
City and county leaders are inviting the public to a panel discussion from 2-3 p.m. May 28 to talk about their respective embedded social worker programs. The event will be at Smokey Point Community Church, 17721 Smokey Point Blvd. in Arlington.
Thomas and Sutton build relationships of trust with the homeless and vulnerable population by entering camps and offering access to services that can lessen the likelihood they will reoffend.
Ventura said city leaders recognized that with each jurisdiction dealing with the same issues, partnering was the best way to attack the problem. The county is a critical partner because social services funding tends to start at the federal level and trickle down to the state and counties.
“We saw if we worked with the county, we could see head-of-line services faster than we could provide them; we had a big need of services that aren’t here,” Ventura said.
That aside, he noted organizations like the Arlington Community Resource Center and Stillaguamish Tribes’ methadone clinic and healing center are helping fill that need.
If it sounds like Ventura’s perspective is focused more on compassion than enforcement and busting bad people, chalk it up to a unique upbringing.
Ventura was homeless and father-less at age 15. He had a child when he was 16, and resolved to grow up fast and be the father that he didn’t have. He joined the military, then worked for the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Agency before hiring with Arlington.
Ventura said when he joined the police force 19 years ago, Arlington and the region were mired in a methamphetamine epidemic. Officers counted less than half a dozen homeless people around town and knew them by name.
“Most were older, veterans, with some substance issues, usually alcohol,” Ventura said. “They didn’t cause a lot of problems. Some were actually helpful to law enforcement.”
Today, Arlington and other communities are in the throes of an opioid epidemic, stemming from addiction to meds used to treat chronic pain, and the war in Afghanistan that flooded the drug market, making opium and heroin cheaper and more accessible than pills. Add mental health issues, stress related to jobs and housing markets, legalization of marijuana, immigration and the introduction of fentanyl to increase the potency of street drugs to the mix, and the issue becomes far more acute.
Most of the homeless police deal with are men under 40 and opioid addicted, Ventura said. Methamphetamine is making a comeback as well.
Officer Thomas said they are seeing some young people when visiting camps as well.
Ventura said just over 60% of the homeless have an Arlington address, up to 15% are county residents, and the rest are from King County or another state.
Ventura said law enforcement has worked closely with the business community, particularly in the Smokey Point area that experiences criminal activity being just off Interstate 5. Business owners tell him they have seen a general decline in vagrancy and suspicious activities.
Ventura said he wishes the public wouldn’t paint the homeless with the same broad brush.
The homeless can be people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in difficult circumstances or have problems tied to mental health issues that put them in need of social services.
Then there are the criminal transients, Ventura said, who may have made bad decisions tied to addiction and becoming homeless.
For the latter group, he said, “Most of the people in Arlington that are in those circumstances, the Community Outreach team has already reached out to offer them services, and they’ve refused.”
Those individuals are mistrustful of law enforcement bearing good intentions, fearing they’re just a step away from being arrested, their car seized, or being uprooted and pushed out of the area.
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this situation,” Ventura said. When necessary, they will jail them, but the compassionate approach is the first offer to get the homeless sober, into treatment and possibly short-term housing.
If they’re unwilling to accept help and change their ways, Ventura warns “it’s pretty clear there is no place in Arlington they can live committing crimes and victimizing the community. We will hold you accountable, we will enforce the law.”
Ventura said when police arrest an individual, local governments are often on the hook for law and justice costs that can run up to $100 a day – and those costs are skyrocketing. Detainment, booking fees, daily storage fees, food, medical needs and prosecution hit small towns like Arlington hard.