North Sound News

A first-hand look at Snohomish County's opioid epidemic

SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash. — In 2017, Snohomish County formed its Opioid Response Multi-Agency Coordination — or MAC group. It’s a coordinated effort across multiple jurisdictions, government agencies, and service providers to address the opioid crisis.

As part of the county’s unified effort, it recently conducted the second annual Opioid Point In Time Count – similar to the annual One Night Homeless Count. But this effort counts the number of overdoses over a seven-day period. Every police agency in the county, hospital, EMS, syringe exchange, the medical examiner and the jail take part in the count.

The goal: “To better understand the scope of and the impact of the problem here in Snohomish County,” said Heather Thomas with the Snohomish County Health District.

“But at the same time, really making a dent in getting resources into the hands of people that need them at all levels, whether it’s prevention or treatment or recovery or support and really attacking it from all angles,” Thomas said.

For this year’s count, I was invited to get an up-close look at what those on the front lines of this epidemic are dealing with every day and the multi-pronged approach that the county is taking.

I spent time with the county’s nuisance property task force, which is led by Deputy Sheriff David Chitwood and includes members of the health district, code enforcement, and a social worker who — once a week and armed with a new county ordinance — go out to derelict properties where drug users converge.

The properties are a nuisance in a bunch of different ways, Chitwood said, “From garbage to squatters, to junkyard conditions to lame duck properties,” and drug use and crime.

Under the new county law, properties can be deemed a nuisance property after four or more violations of criminal issues in 90 days for everything from drug arrests, to stolen vehicles and animal cruelty. The property owner has to have a written plan to resolve the issues and if they don’t, they face hefty fines and even property seizure.

If there are building or health code violations, those fines also come in to play.

“Once they get a $20,000 fine from code enforcement, they’re like holy crap! I gotta get this property cleaned up and then they start working with us,” Chitwood said.

On this day, we start at 9 a.m. at the morning briefing, where Chitwood lists the properties the team will be visiting. The first is right in the middle of a beautiful neighborhood on Sunset Road in Bothell. The house is owned by a guy serving time, but the county is looking to hold the wife accountable.

The team is here, not for the first time, because patrol has received reports of people going in and out of the property at all hours.

As we approach the driveway, there’s an abandoned school bus in the front yard. Around back there are mounds of garbage, abandoned shells of vehicles, heaping mounds of garbage, and mattresses.

At the back of the house, the sliding glass door is wide open. That, Chitwood tells me, is a violation.

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There is nobody inside, but you can tell people have been squatting there and the house has been gutted, wires ripped out, and fixtures are missing.

In the past, there have been people living in motorhomes on the property, in stolen vehicles, and there’s been drug use. There’s no power or water so squatters had been going to the bathroom outside.

Chitwood says at the very least, the homeowners need to clean up the yard and board up the house.

“You can’t just leave it like this because the neighbors have an issue with it,” he said.

You also can’t have an unsecured home.

“You see how easy it was to get on here…if we’re looking for a place to crash tonight this is a very easy spot to do it,” he said.

Chitwood says people crash for a couple of days, and if nobody has said anything to them a couple of days turns into a couple of weeks. They move their stuff in and are squatting and think they have a right to the place. That is not the case.

Chitwood says if a property owner has given a person even a verbal OK to be at a home, then they do have to go through an eviction process. But, if it’s just someone who showed up on the property, they have no rights and can be removed — a fact strengthened in 2017 with the passage of SB 5388 in the state Legislature.

At the home in Bothell, the homeowner will likely get a $10,000 fine for the unsecured building. But for junkyard conditions, the fine is only $150.

The team will follow up in 30 days.

Our next stop is a home in Woodinville off Highway 9 and Little Bear Creek Road. It’s a nice, quiet neighborhood, but at the end of a long driveway leading back to this home, the scene is very different. There have been reports of drug activity and squatting.

It’s the first time the team has been to this house.

Chitwood is concerned for our safety so I hang back until they deem it safe. At the end of the long drive, you can see piles and piles of garbage all around, prescription bottles, used needles, and even a bullet. Just ahead is a trailer. I ask Chitwood if that’s the home we’re here to check. No, he says, that’s farther back. The deputies very cautiously escort us back, passed the trailer, which is absolutely disgusting inside and the odor – noxious. It looks like it has been used to house chickens.

As we approach the front porch of the actual home, a side window is open as is the front door. Garbage and debris is spilling out the front door and down the porch steps, but what you really notice is the putrid smell that nearly knocks you over. The deputies have not cleared the inside of the home; it is too gross to go inside.

“This is ugly,” Chitwood said, “and as the weather gets warmer this week can you imagine you as a neighbor … what you’re going to smell with a breeze. You’re sitting in the backyard with a bonfire or you’re trying to barbecue and you have this? This is totally unacceptable.”

The most amazing thing about this property? It’s on the market. Chitwood said the realtor will be held accountable on this one.

But it’s a process. Chitwood expects it will take three months to get the situation at this home resolved. They’ll keep tabs with patrol and be back in 30 days.

On this outing, we did not come across any of the people squatting or using drugs in the properties, though it is clear they had been there.

When they do, it’s part of the county’s coordinated effort. The cops are there for any criminal issues and the social worker is there to try to lure squatters and drug users into treatment or connect them with housing and other services.

But Chitwood admits some people he comes across are unwilling to take the help and even when they are booted from one property will often be found at another squatter house.

The team, on occasion, will encounter people who are overdosing and will report those on a weekly basis for the Opioid Point in Time Count.