By Katie Rogers, Department of Community and Human Services
While downtown, you may come across people in blue coats assisting our unsheltered neighbors around City Hall Park. These people are part of the City Hall Park Neighborhood Outreach Team, a one-of-a-kind program funded through the Behavioral Health and Recovery Division (BHRD) within the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS).
Robert Ewanio, a King County employee since 2013, supervises the outreach team and is a familiar face around City Hall Park. He took a Special Duty assignment last year to work directly with the outreach team.
“I saw that the position was open, and I wanted to be involved in the program,” said Ewanio. “Let’s bring behavioral health into the street. People who are in crisis can rely on a trained behavioral health professional to respond, often before police respond.”
The City Hall Park Neighborhood Outreach Team is made up of eight people. The team includes one mental health professional, and seven peers, and the peers are people who have lived experience, either with homelessness, mental health issues or substance use disorders.
“I’ve been coming to the office throughout the entire pandemic, and during the pandemic the number of people sleeping outside in downtown began to rise, but there was never a time where I felt unsafe,” Ewanio said. “People are trying to survive, and they are trying to live, and you would be surprised how far a simple ‘hi’ goes in the community.”
The team has seen many people come and go around the park, but one particular incident with an individual stands out.
“Shelby George on our team administered NARCAN as they were overdosing on fentanyl. She saved someone’s life that day,” Ewanio said.
Between November 15, 2021 until the end of March, the outreach team responded to 39 people in crisis, and made 81 shelter and housing referrals. The team actively monitors the area, and as more connections are made, the team expects the numbers to rise.
“This is such an incredible resource downtown and shows the County’s willingness to invest in programs that take a human-centered approach and build relationships in the community,” said Whitney Abrams, Chief People Officer at King County. “I encourage employees to reach out directly to the neighborhood outreach team if you are in the service area and have questions, suggestions, or concerns to share. This is a partnership, and ongoing communication and engagement in and around our buildings is critical to the program’s success.”
The area around the park has historically lacked outreach and resources. Since the program began, 33 medical referrals have been made, and 45 case management referrals were made. When an encampment was cleared on Yesler, the team was able to find shelter for seven people.
Prevention is a critical part of the work. Being able to recognize a familiar face, and the services people know they can access, it keeps people engaged, and it reduces the triggers for crisis. If people are getting more food and water, it is less of a trigger for crisis. The connection also reduces the likelihood of crisis.
Kelli Nomura, Director of BHRD at DCHS recognized the unmet need in the area and helped develop the neighborhood outreach program.
“The team is proactive in connecting people to possible resources, and has a good understanding of what the City is doing, what the neighborhood is doing, and how to connect people to other resources.”
There is nothing similar to this program, it is a mix of hybrid outreach and de-escalation.
“It is an important investment to have a behavioral health presence in an area that is typically underserved, and our successes are evident by getting folks connected to behavior health and social services,” Nomura said. “What is most critical in this program is trust—connecting people with an established contact in order to build a relationship.”
When City Hall Park reopens, the City Hall Park Neighborhood Outreach Team will still be in the area, and they plan to be a part of the process of engaging with the community and responding to King County staff in the area. The service area for the team is from Yesler Way to James Street and 2nd Ave to 4th Ave.
To speak with a neighborhood outreach team member directly, or if you see someone in crisis within the service area and don’t know what to do, call 206-537-3770.