Arlington's approach to homeless crisis differs from Seattle – and officials say it's working

ARLINGTON, Wash. -- Like many cities across Western Washington, Arlington has turned to a police-embedded social worker program to help deal with a homelessness crisis that has been fueled, in part, by the opioid epidemic.

The program, versions of which are being used in Seattle, Everett, and across Snohomish County, pairs social workers with police officers to offer outreach and services to those living on the streets.

But unlike Seattle – the epicenter of the crisis – Arlington has made it clear that compassion will not come at the expense of prosecution for those unwilling to accept help.

“As you’re probably familiar, a lot of people are OK with the circumstances they’re in and they don’t want that help,” said Arlington Police Chief Jonathan Ventura. “Our community has been very clear: that is unacceptable. You cannot be 40 years old, living behind the dumpster at the local grocery store, panhandling for drugs and stealing all the food you need.”

While Chief Ventura said officers and the community will step up to help those who are ready to turn their lives around, those who aren’t will be prosecuted if they commit crimes within the city. Even relatively minor offenses, such as shoplifting and car prowls, will be charged in Arlington, he said. The same is not true in Seattle, where misdemeanor theft is all but decriminalized for the city’s homeless population.

A recent report commissioned by the business community in Seattle highlighted a deeply flawed criminal justice system that allows for so-called “prolific offenders” to cycle in and out of jail with nearly no accountability or, at the very least, access to treatment for the underlying causes of their criminal behavior.

In Arlington, Ventura said the city’s combined approach of compassion and enforcement has yielded results.

“The outreach team has been out for almost a year, and we’ve seen a correlation in a drop in the number of homeless encampments within the city, a drop in the number of regular contacts that we’re having with people,” he said. “We’ve seen an 11% decrease in shoplifting, and a 15% decrease in theft overall.”

For Arlington Officer Ken Thomas, a veteran of the force who volunteered to work on the outreach team in Arlington, the approach is a welcome change to the broken system he saw for much of his career.

“We’re working to break a cycle of returning to the streets, and arrests, and crimes,” he said. “It’s very positive to find somebody that wants the help and wants to move forward with that. As you work with them you get to know them on a different level. There’s things I know about people on the streets I’ve never known about them.”

Q13 News spent a day out with Arlington’s police-embedded social worker team, part of a coordinated effort across Snohomish County. Watch the team at work, below.