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How small Washington cities are attempting to fight homelessness

A homeless encampment under I-90 in Seattle. (KIRO 7 TV)

As crime and homelessness impact bigger cities across Snohomish County, it’s spreading to some of the smaller, nearby areas that don’t have the same resources as cities like Everett. So some small towns are getting a lot more creative and collaborative.

Sultan Councilmember (and mayoral candidate) Russell Wiita joined the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH to discuss homelessness in his city and how it has impacted his mayoral run.

“One of the unique things about a small community like Sultan is that by nature of being small the issue seems more visible. We don’t have as many public spaces and so those in the community who are homeless, who are addicted are congregating in the places that everyone drives by,” he said. “The impact seems much bigger in a community like Sultan than a larger city like Everett where it’s concentrated in certain areas.”

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Trying to manage the local homelessness issue means collaborating with neighboring cities, and importing ideas and policies that have shown effective results.

“I think it’s important to collaborate with our neighbors up and down the valley. The city of Monroe has tried out the embedded social worker program that’s been a huge success in Marysville and Arlington,” he said.

Wiita has proposed bringing this program into Sultan, and fears that such programs only are effective when multiple neighboring cities employ them.

“What we’ve seen in the past is when one city cracks down on this issue, we’re essentially just squeezing the balloon, we’re pushing them up and down the valley, and so if we’re not tackling this with a unified approach, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

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The embedded social worker program essentially pairs a police officer with a social worker, and approaches those living on the street with two options: that of going through law enforcement — likely resulting in jail time — or working with the social worker who will help provide resources to get them off the street, and/or help with issues of addiction.

“There has been some resistance on the part of the current administration in Sultan go down that path. I’ve led the charge on council and we haven’t quite gotten there. As mayor it’s something that I’d be able to really push,” he said.

“I think there’s resistance among the public to the embedded social worker program on its surface, because it seems like we’re coddling folks, but the important piece is that you’ve got to have that strong arm of the law behind it,” Wiita said. “These people who are addicted in the state, they’re not going to come to help easily, and so there’s got to be that motivation. That motivation is arresting these people and putting them in jail.”

To learn more about Wiita’s campaign, head to www.russellforsultan.com

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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