South Sound police department program assisting the homeless set to expand in Olympia

A program in the South Sound connecting healthcare workers with houseless people is growing. 

The Crisis Response Unit within the Olympia Police Department launched only a few years ago after voters approved funding. It aims to help people suffering from mental health, addiction or housing crises find a pathway off the streets. 

Olympia Police Officer Patrick Hutnik has been a cop for nearly a decade, but his partner is not an officer of the law. Aana Sundling is a behavioral health counselor. 

The pair are part of a program in Olympia meant to reduce the number of times police officers respond to incidents when a social worker could make a bigger impact. 

"Honestly sometimes jail is just not the correct place to take some of people that are dealing with things we are seeing out here," said Hutnik. 

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The teams mostly work on foot. Hutnik said that can help him and counselors build trust with those who need help. He said just a few years ago, police responding to a stranger’s rough morning could have ended with a trip to jail. Except under this program, he said he can take time to listen and understand those facing crises in Downtown Olympia.

"We can sit down and have a talk and figure out what’s going on," he said. 

"Sometimes it’s housing," said Sundling. "Sometimes it’s that they got discharged and they don’t have their meds."

From April through June 2020, 500 people were contacted through the program. Since the beginning of this year, nearly 2,400 people were reached by outreach workers. Sundling said that shows help is needed and accessible without first having to meet with a police officer first. 

"I see some positive outcomes and I see people get help when they really need it," she said. 

The 2021 budget for the program is adding another $250,000. The city is in the process of hiring a nurse to join the team for 40 hours each week and expanding the response team. Two more part-time positions could be added for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. 

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