“This is something that our deputies encounter daily,” says Deputy Marty Zelaya. “It’s a real problem.”
When it comes to people who have the most direct encounters with need in our community, the local law enforcement officers may come to mind first. For the deputies at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s office, who patrol this unincorporated area of the county, need is not an abstract concept or a political debate. Instead it is a daily routine of seeing poverty, homelessness, and addiction that comes with faces, bodies, and voices.
Zelaya works in the neighborhood outreach division and is used to working with neighborhoods and Home Owners Associations on issues around need and safety. He recalled a recent visit with a neighborhood that was dealing with a group of people squatting inside a home that had been foreclosed. Working with neighbors and the Homeless Outreach Team of the department, they were able to not only remove the people from the property, but offer them resources that may help them get back on their feet. “Our solution right now, the outreach unit, they are the ones going out there and trying to get folks the help they need,” Zelaya says. That team consists of police and social workers who specialize in connecting homeless people to available resources, rehabilitation, and opportunities.
In describing the kinds of need deputies encounter regularly, he pointed out that even though this area can seem problem-free at times, there are several homeless encampments and issues with squatting in uninhabited houses. In addition, deputies daily administer treatments to people who have overdosed on opioids, a topic we will explore in another series. Zelaya and the department can’t help but notice the interconnectedness of issues like homelessness, poverty, and addiction. But in the same breath he acknowledges the shortcomings of many of the solutions that the local law enforcement can provide. “Right now we essentially have a program where we are pushing the homeless from one area to another and once we go from A to Z, they’re back to A and then we’re starting over again.”
The Sheriff’s Department also has some helpful tips for people who are moved by their compassion but who are unsure of how to help. The one point that Zelaya stressed the most was not to give money to panhandlers. He points out, “We need to get community members to realize that, even though their heart is in the right place, they are often enabling addictive behavior.” Instead of giving money directly to the people you encounter, you may try to provide food. And if you are moved to help a person in need, the best thing you can do is donate to a charity that can assist those in need without enabling addiction.
After hearing the descriptions of what need looks like, I was left with the problem of trying to understand the underlying foundations of need here. And to that question, Zelaya had one answer: stress. “All the research in how to prevent this stuff points to programs that teach kids properly deal with stress. If you teach them at that age, they are less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with stress.” And while people may have a hard time wrapping their head around the big issues like poverty and homelessness, stress is something we all can relate to. And it doesn’t take too much creative imagination to picture how stress can lead to addiction, which can lead to poverty and homelessness. And this is the cycle that is repeated over and over again not only in our community, but across the country.