Editors note: This story was distributed nationwide. It highlights efforts here to tackle chronic homelessness and the related problems of addiction and mental illness. We have added relevant links to the Heralds coverage of those problems. By Phuong Le / Associated Press
EVERETT This is the lesson that the working-class city of Everett has learned: It takes a community to rescue the hardcore homeless.
It takes teams of outreach workers building relationships with men and women struggling with addiction or untreated mental illness, prodding them to get help. It takes police and other agencies, working together to provide for their needs.
0 seconds of 0 seconds Volume 0 percent And it takes a prosecutor who was tired of managing the unending cycle of homelessness jail-street-jail-street-jail. Hil Kaman left his job prosecuting the homeless and took up the challenge of finding solutions. For starters, he helped put together a team that would track the 25 most costly and vulnerable cases, and hover over each one individually until he or she was in treatment or housing.
It was when everything else seems to have failed, said Kaman, who became the citys public health and safety director 17 months ago.
Theyll bring someone to jail several hundred times, bring someone to the emergency department dozens of times the (people) resistant to treatment and other alternatives. It was a call to say, Isnt there anything else that we could do?
In two years, Everetts specialized team has found some form of housing for 14 chronically homeless people on its by-name list. The citys newly formed community outreach enforcement team has gotten more than two dozen people into long-term treatment, primarily using beds paid through a partnership with a nonprofit that helps officers deal with the opioid crisis. The city also set up a flex fund that accepts private donations to help pay for motel rooms, bus tickets and other costs.
Alex Rehn (right), a homeless heroin and meth addict, talks with a volunteer with MercyWatch, an outreach group that serves the needs of the homeless population in Everett, as they kneel on a sidewalk under the Smith Avenue Bridge. Rehn, who has since entered a treatment program, said his addiction had destroyed everything he once had, including a job and time with his young son. Its a deep dark ugly hole that tricks your mind into believing its not what it really is, Rehn said. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Its among an array of strategies the city has tried. There is still much work to do: Everett, a city of 110,000 north of Seattle hard-hit by the opioid epidemic, and surrounding Snohomish County saw a 65 percent jump in people living outside between 2015 and 2017 one of the largest increases on the West Coast in that period, according to a one-night count earlier this year.
The number of unsheltered chronically homeless those who have been homeless for longer than a year while struggling with a serious mental illness, substance use disorder or physical disability has grown steadily in the Everett region, more than doubling since 2015. Thats even as the city and county added more supportive housing.
Kaman and others say a combination of the opioid epidemic, poverty, lack of unskilled jobs, rising rents, and a shortage of affordable housing have made it even harder for those who fall into homelessness to get out.
Hil Kaman walks near what once was a homeless encampment adjacent to the site of a planned low-barrier housing project on city land that will eventually house 65 chronically homeless people. Kaman is a former prosecutor who became the citys public health and safety director in 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
The problem is not limited to Everett; up and down the West Coast, the high cost of housing has forced thousands of people to live on the streets, a trend that opioids have exacerbated.
These are expensive places to live. Its expensive for everybody. But the burden falls the hardest on people with the biggest problems, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy with the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Everett sues over opioids
In 2011, roughly one in every five opioid-related deaths in Washington state took place in Snohomish County. That was the peak, but heroin deaths remain high and deaths from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are climbing. Last month, county officials partially activated its emergency coordination center , typically used for natural disasters, to respond to the opioid crisis. So far this year, health officials have collected 2 million discarded needles .
This year, Everett city officials were among the first to sue the manufacturer of the painkiller OxyContin in this picturesque former mill town on Puget Sound, where thousands of workers now assemble the newest Boeing airplanes. The crisis in Everett was so dire that city officials were among the first to sue the manufacturer of OxyContin. The city blames Purdue Pharma for an addiction crisis that has overwhelmed city resources and deepened its homelessness problem.
Kaman joined the city’s mayor, police chief, city council members, and others who traveled to Seattle in September to convince a federal judge to allow the city’s lawsuit against the drug manufacturer to continue.
While that case works through the court, social workers and police officers are fanning out to find people camping under the freeway or living in RVs or the woods, to try to connect them to services. Many of them initially deflect treatment or are too ill to even know they need aid.
James McGee, a heroin addict who was living in his minivan on the streets, was among those who got help.
After undergoing shoulder surgery, the 27-year-old started popping OxyContin pills. When the drug’s manufacturer altered its formula, he switched to heroin because it was cheaper. Initially, he promised himself he would never ascend. Then he did.
You draw that line, tell yourself that you will not cross it, and then you do, McGee said. Then you keep going and going. Before I realize it, I’m inserting needles into my body and using heroin and meth daily.
He ultimately lost his Costco job and his apartment. Last summer, shortly after overdosing in a parking lot and being revived by someone with overdose-reversal spray on hand, McGee entered a police station and begged for assistance. Kaitlyn Dowd, a social worker embedded with the Everett police department, assisted in connecting him to treatment approximately 100 miles away.
Now he resides in sober housing, has been sober for over 90 days, works in construction, and attends as many recovery meetings as possible. He never thought he would experience such a satisfying recovery. Everyone has the right to a second chance.
For each individual who finds a treatment bed or permanent supportive housing, there are many more who wait. Prior to the opening of a second facility this summer, the county only had 16 publicly funded detox beds for its 785,000 residents. To find beds, many must leave the county or even the state.
According to experts, a lack of on-demand treatment and a lack of housing that meets specific needs are among the greatest obstacles to getting people off the streets. Advocates and city officials assert that without permanent housing, the homeless will return to the streets after receiving treatment, thereby perpetuating the cycle.
Dominic, who lives with mental illness, is seated on a sidewalk in Everett beneath the Smith Avenue Bridge. He has been identified as one of the most chronic and expensive users of emergency and other services, but despite the efforts of a specialized team of professionals, he continues to live on the streets. (Photo by AP/Ted S. Warren)
Using vouchers, the city has been moving chronically homeless individuals into private rental units, according to Kaman. However, the region’s low vacancy rate makes this task significantly more difficult.
On city-owned land, Everett is moving forward with a low-barrier permanent supportive housing development. The project with Catholic Housing Services will house 65 chronically homeless individuals without requiring them to be drug-free or address other issues first. Residents will have access to mental health, recovery, and other services, as well as staff on-site around the clock.
Compared to the costs of serving the chronically homeless in emergency rooms, shelters, and jails, such housing can save the public money, according to studies.
However, there are so many chronically homeless people on the waiting list for housing in the Everett region that these units will be full when they open in 2019
Tom Sebastian, CEO of Compass Health, the largest behavioral health provider in Snohomish County, stated that housing is as important, if not more important than medication and other services.
On a vacant lot in downtown Everett, his organization is developing an 84-unit housing complex for mentally ill and addicted homeless individuals.
Compass Health does not typically develop housing, but because of the housing shortage, we feel compelled to do something to address the issue, Sebastian explained.
Stability is a lifeline for those who have access to housing and services.
Otherwise, 35-year-old Garrick Heller, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, would be living on the streets, he said.
He was civilly committed because he posed a threat to himself or others several years ago. He spent time on the streets, in shelters, and eventually in a Compass Health-operated locked psychiatric facility. Over time, he moved into increasingly independent living situations administered by Compass Health.
Currently, he resides in a studio apartment and sleeps on an air mattress. Within blocks of his residence, he receives counseling and other services for mental health. A service helps him pay his bills and rent, amounting to one-third of his monthly disability payment of $735.
Heller stated that he takes his medication regularly and strives each day to adhere to his treatment. He intends to seek employment soon and wishes to pass the GED.
Getting back to normal was a lengthy process, he said. Im determined to get better.
A financial burden
The cost of finding solutions to homelessness is high. Voters in the city and county of Los Angeles have approved two ballot measures that will generate approximately $4.7 billion over the next decade to fund thousands of affordable housing units and homeless services.
A non-profit organization pledged $100 million in May to assist San Francisco in halving the number of chronically homeless within five years by increasing permanent housing and mental health services.
In Sacramento, where the number of people living on the streets has increased by 116 percent over the past two years, the city and county agreed last month to spend tens of millions of dollars to coordinate mental health and substance abuse services. The new initiative is centered on directing them toward permanent housing.
And last month, King County, which includes Seattle, partnered with the Ballmer Group and others to create a new incentive-based program for agencies that provide outpatient treatment on demand.
The chronically homeless impose a significant financial burden on Everett, straining the jail, emergency room, and other services. In one extreme example, officials estimated that one individual utilized approximately $500,000 worth of such resources in one year. Another homeless man spent eight years and 800 nights in jail for trespassing and other nuisance offenses.
The team of Everett perseveres despite the difficulty of difficult cases.
Teams attempt to serve people wherever they are, whether in the streets, the woods, or beneath freeways. Volunteers with The Hand Up Project, the majority of whom are formerly homeless and recovering addicts, have been searching for others who may be ready for rehabilitation.
On a rainy day, they discovered Robart Blocher, 34, living in a two-story tree fort he had constructed from discarded materials. According to him, his meth addiction, social anxiety disorder, and other mental health issues make it difficult for him to seek assistance.
Prior to his addiction, a series of poor decisions, and health problems, he earned $14.50 per hour as a chef. As a result, he was forced to find shelter in the woods. He had been residing in a basement apartment, but was evicted after his roommate passed away. He then moved into a trailer and began couch surfing. In the end, he lost his job.
According to a recent report, a person working a full-time minimum wage job cannot afford an apartment that is not subsidized or shared with others. Blocher’s experience confirms this finding. Nowadays, no way, he said.
When the outreach team approached Blocher, offering to help him into treatment, he seemed receptive. He stated that he needed a mental health evaluation, but he had to take care of other matters first.
The volunteers retreat temporarily. They will come back.
Hil Kaman had previously prosecuted 38-year-old Joshua Rape. His life has been a revolving door of jail sentences, homeless shelters and couches, and wandering the streets for years.
A specialized team of mental health professionals, housing and recovery specialists, social workers, jail personnel, and officers worked to establish a rapport with him. Rape recalled instances when he told them he wanted to get better, but then vanished: “I was quite evasive and elusive.”
Amy Austin, an opioid outreach specialist, persisted with him.
When he missed an appointment after relapsing a year ago due to a relapse, he recalled, she went searching for him.
I simply wanted him to know he could always find me, she explained.
In the fall of this year, when he decided in jail that he was ready for treatment, the team placed him in a motel until a spot became available. They took turns checking in daily while he waited for a treatment bed for over a week. In October, they drove him 200 miles away to a recovery center to catch a bus.
All of us have been counting down the days until he was prepared. We’ve worked so hard to get him engaged, said social worker Dowd. We’ve known him for many years. We are all invested in his success.
Now he is back in Everett after completing thirty days of inpatient treatment. Several times a week, he attends outpatient treatment and recovery meetings.
This month, the man who has been homeless for six years will receive a housing voucher and move into a one-bedroom apartment for the first time.
He stated that multiple attempts were required. However, things are working out. It is feasible. You must put forth effort to earn it.
Geoff Mulvihill of Associated Press in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed to this report.
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Alex Rehn (right), a heroin and meth addict who is homeless, converses with a volunteer from MercyWatch, an organization that serves the needs of Everett’s homeless population, while kneeling on the sidewalk beneath the Smith Avenue Bridge. Rehn, who has since enrolled in a rehabilitation program, stated that his addiction had cost him everything, including his job and time with his young son. Rehn stated that it is a deep, dark, ugly hole that deceives the mind into believing it is not what it actually is. (Photo by AP/Ted S. Warren)
Hil Kaman walks near the site of a planned low-barrier housing development on city-owned land that will eventually house 65 chronically homeless individuals. Kaman, a former prosecutor, became the city’s director of public health and safety in 2016. (Photo by AP/Ted S. Warren)
Everett homeless encampment needles are cleaned by Steph Gaspar, a volunteer outreach worker for The Hand Up Project, an addiction and homelessness advocacy organization. (Ted S. Warren / Agence France-Presse)
Steph Gaspar, a volunteer outreach worker with The Hand Up Project, removes needles used for drug injection from an Everett homeless camp. (Photo by AP/Ted S. Warren)
This national news story chronicles Everetts community effort to tackle those problems.