PORT ANGELES — For the past year, a social worker has been embedded with officers at the Port Angeles Police Department, connecting people on the streets with resources that could help them avoid the court system and expensive medical services.
Amy Miller, a community change agent with the REdisCOVERY program, has contacted 271 people more than 2,000 times since June 1, 2018, and has found that — with enough persistence — the majority of people she and officers interacted with on the streets were willing to accept some form of help.
“That was something I wanted to document,” Miller said. “A lot of people in the community would ask me ‘how many people do you interact with that actually want help?’ ”
She said it takes time to build a rapport with people and to build trust, but once that is earned, most will accept help.
The grant-funded REdisCOVERY program is a partnership between the Port Angeles Police Department and Olympic Peninsula Community Clinic (OPCC) that started June 2018.
Of the 271 people contacted, only 57 people declined services. Twenty-two of those people were already involved in services.
She said many of those who declined services were just passing through.
“They weren’t hunkering down and they didn’t want services,” she said. “For the most part people were wanting the help that was offered. We weren’t always rushing to treatment; sometimes it took us a minute to get there, or several months.”
Miller said that many of the people she talked to over the last year initially declined services, but she and officers were eventually able to connect people to shelters, detox services, substance use disorder treatment and housing.
They made 361 referrals to many organizations in the community and helped people with paperwork, transportation or providing a “warm hand off” to providers.
She found that of those she contacted more than half were homeless and without shelter. About 11 percent lived in cars or campers, another 10 percent were couch surfing or staying in hotels and 12.5 percent were securely housed. Another 6 percent did not specify their housing status and 6 percent were in jail.
According to the state Department of Commerce, the Clallam County Point in Time Count in January found 196 homeless people, with 42 being chronically homeless. They counted 85 people who were unsheltered and 111 people who had some form of shelter.
Five people were under the age of 18, five required the use of a wheelchair or walker to get around and seven people identified themselves as veterans.
Since October REdisCOVERY has facilitated 20 admissions to detox, diverted 18 people to a crisis department, helped seven people get into a substance use disorder treatment program and helped 15 people get into more permanent housing than the overnight shelter.
Police Chief Brian Smith said one of his goals with the program is to intervene before people commit crimes that harm others and put them in jail. Officials also work closely with the Port Angeles Fire Department to get people medical attention before they hve to visit an emergency room.
“We have people in our community — like every community — who have a difficult time controlling their impulses,” Smith said. “Those are the things that cause me to lose sleep at night, these officers being in a situation where someone is trying to hurt them or someone else and they have to do what they have to do.
“But if we get that person into treatment, rehab, counseling, on medication and off the street, the situation maybe doesn’t happen.”
Smith said there’s no way to know how many crimes have been prevented, but he sees the program as a way to help break the cycle of addiction, homelessness and jail that some people face.
Many of those in that cycle have substance use disorders or mental health issues and will continue to have “bad behavior” until there is intervention, Smith said.
“The situation in Washington where people systemically can do the same thing over and over … frustrates the public — it frustrates us — but it doesn’t mean we’re going to stop,” Smith said. “You can choose other paths.”
Smith said he learned through this program of the stigma that people on the streets face. He said it makes people feel that they are stuck in a never-ending cycle.
“I thought they were people who didn’t care … but [the stigma] hurts them,” he said. “They are struggling inside with what the world thinks of them.”
He said officers strive to treat everyone with respect and to reduce the stigma they face.
Officer Jackson VanDusen, who has been participating in the program, said that this approach and persistent outreach has made it easier to work with certain people. The proactive approach means that officers also are engaging with people that they wouldn’t have seen if they were just chasing the radio, he said.
This program allows officers and Miller to talk to people who may need services but haven’t had any reason to be contacted by law enforcement.
“People that were difficult for us as law enforcement to engage with initially, the longer this program goes on the more those same people have built relationships with us,” VanDusen said.
“It’s easier for us to go up to contact people now and they are more willing to talk to us and are more willing to listen when we ask them to do something
“We try not to push that stigma on them so they feel they are treated as a human being.”
T. Scott Brandon, treasurer of OPCC, said he was pleased to see that Miller made more than 2,000 contacts during the first year.
“The biggest thing about the program is that this is a program that is investing resources in our community to provide better outcomes for people,” Brandon said. “It fits in with the mission of OPCC, in that we are concerned with the health and the wellness of people across the county.”
Those involved with the program are considering the first year a success and they are optimistic that funding will continue in the future.
Funding from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) is set to come to an end at the end of the month and Miller will take a break from the program during the funding gap.
Smith said that because the next funding cycle — which begins July 1 — hasn’t started yet, police departments have not yet been able to apply for the funding but has been assured WASPC will make the applications available soon.
“It’s not as simple as saying the city should have this in its general fund and we’ll just fund it,” Smith said. “We would literally take something out of another city program if we took it out of the city budget.”
Instead, officials will continue to look for various grant opportunities to keep the program going, he said.
The state Legislature allocated $2 million to be distributed by WASPC in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 for mental health field response teams across the state, compared to the $1 million that was allocated last year.
The state budget shows that $3 million of the $4 million that was approved for the next two years is dedicated to regions other than the North Olympic Peninsula.
“That’s how these things work,” Smith said. “You have to find a way to get yourself where you need to go and take every opportunity as you find it.”
The program was funded initially by a county grant to OPCC. In October, PAPD received grant funding from WASPC to fund a mental health field response team.
Brandon said the program is receiving funding from the county through the end of the year and that he is confident that the county money can cover a short gap in funding.
“That would keep us going,” he said. “Our primary interest is keeping the program running, especially with as successful as it’s been. We’ll make it work.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.