Embedded social worker helps Everett police deal with homeless
An exploding homeless population is spreading throughout cities in the Puget Sound area. It’s leading some police departments to come up with creative solutions, like the new embedded social worker recently hired in Everett.
Sergeant Michael Braley says the officers in Everett’s downtown bike unit were already dealing with issues that fit more into the category of social services. They would often contact social service agencies on their own, asking them to do ride-alongs so they could help people on the street.
“When people don’t know where to turn, they turn to us,” Sgt. Braley said. “We don’t really like to say ‘That’s not really our job.’ We like to try to solve the problem.”
That was the beginning of some big changes in how Everett police work with the community. The department has begun to develop a Community Outreach and Enforcement Team. The four officers in the unit aren’t tied to 911 calls. Their focus is getting to know people on the street. Just this month, the team hired its first dedicated social worker, Kaitlyn Dowd.
“I’m not really at my desk that often,” Dowd said. “I’m usually out in the field. But, I’m down with patrol, kind of one of the team.”
Taking it to the streets
Dowd has worked as an in-home family therapist and most recently as a case worker for the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Now, rather than seeing clients in their homes, she’s searching the green spaces of Everett where those without homes set up camp.
The day I joined Dowd and Sgt. Braley, they were meeting up with a couple of officers from the bike unit who had developed a relationship with a group camping out near the Community Center.
Together, they wanted to see if they could figure out why the group was there and what it might take to get them into shelter. Often, they find they’re dealing with mental health issues or drug addiction.
The man they contacted at the camp seemed open to going to a shelter, but was hesitant to make any real plans. Dowd says that’s OK. The important thing is he gave her his email address and she says she plans to use it.
“Some people are going to need a year of me bothering them,” Dowd said. “However long it takes, we’ll be here.”
Sgt. Braley says it’s that persistence that let him know Dowd was the right fit for the job. She’ll need it as she deals with the more difficult cases.
Just days earlier, Dowd met a young woman who was homeless, addicted to methamphetamine, and thought she was about six months pregnant but had never been to see a doctor. Dowd made daily visits to the camp she shares with her boyfriend to earn her trust.
They finally got to a place where Dowd could call her family members to take her to a doctor’s appointment, where they discovered the woman was 37 weeks pregnant. She could go into labor within days.
“I contacted a treatment facility in Seattle,” Dowd said. “They’re willing to make some adjustments to get her in, but even though we made this beautiful plan on Friday, she didn’t stick to it. She doesn’t want to stay anywhere but on the street.”
In the days since, Dowd has continued contact with the woman and hopes to change her mind before she gives birth and is forced to give up her baby.
‘Cops are awesome people’
Dowd can’t let the struggles discourage her. She tries to focus on the positive, like the message that couple left for her and the Sgt. Braley after their last meeting. In graffiti on the sidewalk, it read, “Cops are awesome people.”
As Dowd was working with the expectant mother, another member of the community outreach team was working with a veteran born in 1942. He had been at Swedish hospital. When he was released, he was given a taxi voucher and a night at a local hotel. But, in the middle of the night, he was kicked out of his hotel room.
Officer Mike Bernardi stayed with him until they could find him another hotel for the night. The next morning, Bernardi gave him a ride to Seattle where they had set the man up with an appointment at social services.
Sgt. Braley says sometime it’s just that little something extra that can make a difference. He recalled another veteran who had been homeless for 10 years. He was addicted to drugs, but didn’t want to go into treatment because that would mean leaving his cat.
Braley worked with the local animal shelter to find space for the cat while the man was in treatment. The department helped him get back and forth to his appointments until he was finally able to get into short-term housing, and eventually long-term housing, with the VA.
With Dowd’s help, Everett Police are creating connections with more social service agencies, non-profit groups, and drug treatment centers. They’re also using her as a liaison to navigate the confusing systems in place and plan to create training sessions for officers.
It’s only been a few weeks now, but Dowd seems like a perfect fit.
“Going out into the field. Finding people. Hiking through these homeless camps,” she laughed. “It’s great!”