It’s early in the morning, and Capitol Hill’s homeless men and women are just waking up.
Tanja Warner is curled up in her sleeping bag, sheltered under the roof overhang behind a business. It’s illegal to sleep here, a form of trespassing.
A police officer walks by on his daily beat. He’s with a social worker who approaches her. The social worker’s name is Jackie St. Louis, and he offers dry socks and snacks.
“Tell me Tanya, what can we help you with?” St. Louis asks. She says that she was “out here trying to support a habit.”
Seattle continues to struggle with homelessness. At the end of 10-year plan to end homelessness, there were more homeless on the streets. That has led social workers to try something new: They’re teaming up with cops. The program expanded this year with social workers employed by nonprofits.
After some questions, St. Louis discovers why she hasn’t moved into a shelter. It comes down to bags she doesn’t want to leave unattended.
St. Louis offers to find storage for her stuff. He tells her that he or another social worker on his team will check in on Warner every day until Warner gets into a shelter.
That kind of work requires training police don’t get at the police academy. St. Louis is a licensed mental health professional with a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master’s degree in counseling; previously he worked in prisons.
That kind of social work used to be considered government work. Today, Seattle hires the work out to nonprofits. St. Louis, for example, works for the Downtown Seattle Association. The partnership works because the police know the beat, and the social workers have tools the cops don’t have.
Seattle has experimented with diverting people to social services rather than arresting them. But this daily outreach — where social workers walk the police beat every day — takes intervention to a new level. The program began downtown and expanded recently to Capitol Hill.
“Seattle is really paving the way and a lot of cities are looking to us as a model," says Scott Lindsay, who works in the mayor’s office as special assistant on police reform and public safety.
Lindsay says Seattle is changing how it considers low-level crimes that drag homeless people into a cycle of being arrested and released.
“The reason they’re committing shoplifting and disorder on the streets is because of an addiction issue,” he says. “They want to get help – and we can connect them with those services. That’s a fantastic resolution.”
Especially, Lindsay says, since the Affordable Care Act pays for many of those services.
The cop-social worker program has its fans. But it also has critics.
Rachel Fyall teaches public policy and governance at the Evans School at the University of Washington. She says this partnership between the Downtown Seattle Association and the police may help people, but it fits into a riskier, larger trend that started in the 1980s.
“We call it a lot of things: 'The contracting regime,' or 'the shadow of bureaucracy.' 'The hollowing out of government,'” Fyall says.
The problem is that a government that doesn’t do social work forgets how to do it. And by farming out social work to contractors, we create an industry devoted to social work – an industry that’s less transparent and less accountable than public employees would be.
Fyall says the key is to pay close attention to results of programs like this – and to hold non-profits accountable.
As for Tonja Warner, the homeless woman on Capitol Hill, the program seems to be working.
“They come out here and find you and really take your information and make sure and come back and find you. And they’re really tenacious about helping you," she says. "I’m really appreciative of them. They’re really cool.”
Not only is she appreciative, she sleeps better now, too. That repeated contact from Downtown Seattle Association’s social workers helped get Warner and her partner into a shelter.