MONROE, Wash. - Just a couple of years ago, police in Monroe rarely had to do any outreach to support people who are homeless.
But for the first time this year, an officer has been designated full-time to combat homelessness, a sign the problem is growing in smaller towns.
On Thursday the outreach team took Q13 News along where the landscape of their work looks different from bigger cities.
Monroe Police Officer Justin Springer doesn’t spend his days like most officers. Much of his time is paired up with social worker Elisa Delgado.
“The population we work with is primarily those struggling with homelessness due to their addictions,” Delgado said.
One of the first locations they went looking is behind a strip mall next to a wooded area near Chain Lake Center.
There were piles of trash, much of it just basic necessities like clothes, shoes and hygiene products. There were also a lot of drug needles scattered around.
In Monroe, homelessness is not in your face but it doesn’t mean it’s not growing. Homeless people are not camping out in the open like in many big cities. Instead, they are hiding in the woods.
So in order to reach them, the two have to walk for miles going into the deep woods. Along the way, Q13 News saw signs of life like trash, food and even what looked like a partial tree house.
“They are basically building a fort if you will,” Springer said.
Springer was never trained in the academy for this kind of work, but policing is different now.
“I think you have to change. I think you have to evolve,” Springer said.
On many days, it takes hours canvassing the woods to find a single person.
“There was a recent camp here,” said Springer.
The last time the two were at the camp Springer was referring to, they found a couple. They don’t know where that couple is today and just like them, there are dozens hiding in the woods.
But after several hours of searching, they finally spot a tarp and quickly it’s obvious the outreach team knows the person under the tarp well.
Springer knows the name of the man who is taking refuge under the tarp on private property behind a Walmart. Springer says the man has been homeless for years.
“It can be crushing to see that out in the elements when it’s cold and it’s raining,” Springer said.
They ask the man if he is ready to get help. The response is yes.
“For us that’s a success. Hopefully he will follow through,” Delgado said.
They are cautiously optimistic because he’s said yes before and never showed up, but Delgado and Springer say they won’t stop showing up, no matter how many times it takes.
Why? Because there are success stories. One example, Springer says, is a man they helped who was addicted to drugs and responsible for 100 vehicle prowls over three years.
That man is off of drugs now, not only working but also doing his own outreach to help other homeless people in Monroe.