Homeless to housed: Cities pair police and social workers to help turn lives around

In the beginning, some saw it as an unlikely pairing.

“It was a struggle at first, I have to say,” said Yvonne Nelson, a social worker with an organization called REACH.

She had mixed feelings about working alongside police officers to tackle the city’s homeless crisis.

“We asked them to stand back while we talked to people,” she said, worried that the presence of uniformed officers would prevent people from being honest about things like drug abuse.

The concept of pairing officers with social workers to do homeless outreach has spread across Western Washington. Such programs have already found success in Snohomish County, and the city of Marysville recently started a team of its own.

In Seattle, the approach is called the Navigation Team. Since its inception at the start of 2017, the team has contacted 1,829 people living on the streets and in encampments. Of those, 675 accepted offers to move to safer shelter.

Gerald Brooks, an Air Force veteran, is one of the team’s success stories.