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Inside the Monroe Police unit dedicated to homeless people

Monroe Police Officer Justin Springer and social worker Elisa Delgado catch a breath in a wooded area during their rounds searching for homeless people to help during the morning shift of Wednesday, July 30. On that morning, they encountered two separate people in campsites in city parks. One was given a 24-hour notice to vacate.

MONROE — The Police Department’s community outreach program that helps address homelessness in the city recently put a new officer on its team.
Officer Justin Springer, who grew up in Monroe, was the department’s school resource officer for 6 ½ years.
His new role has him walking parks and trails, helping to identify resources for chronically homeless individuals and giving rides to appointments.
Springer partners with a social worker two days a week on the beat. Elisa Delgado has been part of the program since its inception in 2017, and splits her time between Monroe and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. She hits the ground alongside Officer Springer armed with her cellphone and a list of resources.
The outreach team says there is no such thing as a typical day in their roles.
The Tribune accompanied the team on a morning shift in July. The outreach  team walked city-owned areas known to be used by homeless people as campsites and later made two separate contacts in city parks with people they’ve become acquainted with. One who was staying in a tent was given a 24-hour notice to remove his encampment.
Later, the team drove to Everett and transported a client they’re working with from the Snohomish County Diversion Center to his new living facilities at a nearby clean-and-sober house. The client mentioned he was looking forward to having his own bedroom.
Delgado said their goal in their walks is to do outreach and engage people living on the street by connecting those they encounter to a toolkit of services.
That includes helping people obtain a personal assessment to possibly get them into the county’s diversion center or treatment. Afterward the county can assist with the costs of up to three to six months of clean-and-sober housing while they get back on their feet. 
Follow-up efforts can include help with finding employment and connecting people to resources, which Delgado said is really the end goal of getting homeless people into a better situation.

By embedding a social worker, the department believes it has been able to break down some communication barriers with many in the homeless community. Success in working with people in vulnerable or fragile states can have different measurements and require patience.
Springer said that he has seen a noticeable difference from the first summer of the program when he spent a few months in the field with Delgado. Most people are no longer afraid of encountering officers and are much more willing to be seen talking to the outreach team.
“There is not really any hesitation in terms of that fear of them being labeled as a ‘snitch’,” he said. “They’re just talking to the social worker team to try and get some help, so that perception is a giant swing I think.”
In the first six months this year, the outreach team has doubled its number of contacts to 442 so far, compared with the entirety of 2018 when they made 215 contacts. The 48 new clients reached so far are eight more than last year’s total.
They have also helped 12 clients to be housed and reported three detox completions, two completed mental health assessments and eight inpatient treatment graduations this year.
Most of the training for this work can’t be found in a manual and involves learning from Delgado’s experience and navigation skills when it comes to finding available help for the people they encounter, Springer said.
“Being in a position where you truly get to help people, it sounds kind of cliché and cheesy, but it is nice helping people in your community that you like being a part of,” Springer said.
Delgado said, in her experience, one of the hardest things can be convincing clients to close the door on negative influences in their life and to come to the outreach team if they need help.
She said she tells them, “We are your new clean-and-sober network, which might be weird for you, right? Law enforcement and a social worker? But truly we are your new network to go to.”
On the Wednesday walk, Delgado was nearly constantly on her phone coordinating with clients and her vast network of supportive services providers.
She said that she gets calls or texts from clients at all times of the day or night, even on holidays. She finds her job fulfilling but said it isn’t for somebody who wants a strictly scheduled day that goes as planned.
Delgado has a background in mental health work and said she thinks that a lot of times the most addicted and visible members of the homeless population aren’t always representative of the complexities of the issue.
“I think we find homelessness is much broader than that,” she said. “There are people that can stay out of everyone’s view and be kind of invisible in the community because they don’t go around and cause crimes.”
The outreach team also works with various partners to help individuals whose needs might not only involve substance abuse or mental health issues.
“Partnership with local nonprofits, area social service providers and other community stakeholders are essential to law enforcement outreach success,” said Sergeant Paul Ryan, who occupied the outreach position for over a year.
Take The Next Step, at 202 S. Sams St., is one local partner that can help provide many different resources for people in a variety of necessities and living situations. Mary Wysocki, its executive director, said her organization serves many of the same clients and meets with the department’s outreach team four times a year to compare notes and identify emerging needs.
Issues surrounding client confidentiality can be tricky, Wysocki said, but she refers people to seek help through the police department’s program whenever possible.
She sees Delgado as the eyes and ears of what’s going on in encampments.
“We rely on what she is seeing out there,” said Wysocki.
For example, Wysocki said Delgado identified a bunch of people in encampments who had abscessed infections that were going untreated. Take The Next Step was then able to work with some local volunteer doctors to provide free medical care for their clients at a regularly scheduled dinner.
The police department’s outreach efforts have been a learning process that involved building rapport with many different stakeholders in Monroe, Ryan said. He called relationship building one of the most crucial lessons gained from the outreach efforts.
“Our success has been built through trust and honest communication, placing value in relationships,” Ryan said.



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