The city of Monroe is developing a contract for an embedded social worker to serve with officers that connect with the city’s homeless.
Monroe Police Sgt. Ryan Irving illustrated the importance of the community support position during Tuesday’s council meeting. The specialized employee would help unite the chronically displaced with available critical services. Irving has been the primary point of contact between the city and the homeless community, which he said has been somewhat fruitful, but has limitations.
“I think as a city we kind of saw this coming down the pipe. We saw what other agencies are doing — this is not our model,” he said. “Santa Monica (California) PD is kind of the agency that started this all in saying, ‘We need to look at embedding a social worker that can take this part of it away from the police.’ I mean, police aren’t traditionally focused as social workers; they are focused on arresting people.”
It is a new approach for the city, Irving said, engaging with homeless people instead of acting only as enforcers.
Irving said the old model of just making people leave doesn’t work. Depending on the individual and what led to their situation, without a way out, people just live the same way elsewhere, he said.
“People in crisis who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse and other issues still remain in crisis when you move them,” he said.
Encampments of various sizes can be found on private and public lands throughout the city, Irving said. Keeping statistics hasn’t previously been a priority, but Irving said he is in regular contact with at least 22 people experiencing homelessness within city limits.
Hopefully that number will continue to decrease the longer the social worker is employed, said Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas. Right now, the position would only be part time, and is currently projected to cost $60,000 annually.
Irving said he also has various constraints on how he can respond to illegal camping or trespassing, which are both misdemeanors in Washington.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice said making sleeping in public spaces should not be considered criminal under certain circumstances. According to an Aug. 6, 2015 DOJ statement,“… making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places, when there is insufficient shelter space in a city, unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless.”
Less than two weeks later the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sent a letter to cities and legal and law enforcement associations statewide. The letter outlined a stance similar to the DOJ, against ordinances that “do not promote public safety, impose needless costs on prosecutorial, defense, and court services, and do nothing to solve the underlying problems of poverty, homelessness, and mental illness.”
One question Irving said he is often asked is, “Well, where am I supposed to go?” That is one area where an embedded social worker would be helpful. The worker would know who needs a place to stay, and what the availability is in town, he said.
Jail is usually not going to be the answer, Irving said.
People suffering from drug addictions, mental health issues or substance abuse “need more intensive care while incarcerated,” Irving said. The Snohomish County Jail has imposed restrictions on who can be booked for those reasons. People with those conditions cannot be booked by committing a misdemeanor, such as sleeping in parks, he said.
This year the jail lifted the restrictions then reimposed them because no detox beds were available after only five days, Irving said. Additionally, rehabilitation doesn’t always fix the issue. Once an addict is out of jail or leaves a center, they can end up back in the same situation if they don’t have other supports in place, he said.
Take the Next Step counselor Micheal Lorio came to endorse the idea of the embedded social worker. He said the longer someone is homeless, the more life skills they lose “that we take for granted,” including relationship skills, the ability to have positive dialogue and coping mechanisms.
“I think we can all agree that if you were homeless, you would find that to be a very traumatic experience, regardless of why it started, regardless of why you find yourself in your situations, or what coping mechanisms you develop to deal with homelessness,” Lorio said. “It is a very traumatic experience.”
A social worker that knows the individual would be able to help set them up with housing, coordinated entry or get them into another long-term program to keep them from reoffending, Irving said. He highlighted one other significant problem in the area, which is the lack of housing for people who may want it.
It is very clear there is not enough housing, said Councilmember Jeff Rasmussen. To mitigate chronic homelessness, offering affordable housing and more housing will be a necessary piece, he said.
Councilmember Jason Gamble said he appreciated Irving’s honesty during the presentation. He said he would like to see more consistent updates on the city’s progress working with the homeless community.
“We need to be fair, but we need to be fair to the residents and these individuals we are trying to help,” Gamble said. “...It is a crisis. I am going to call it what it is.”
Thomas said the contract will likely be placed before the city council for approval within the next few months.