Further information obtained from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) shows the agency was involved in conducting clearings of homeless camps outside of Lynnwood in late March, despite initially denying involvement.
Emails obtained by the Reporter show SCSO’s office of neighborhoods deputies were aware of — and actively engaged in — camp clearings near 164th Street Southwest and Ash Way. However, when initially asked by the Reporter, SCSO public information officer Shari Ireton said she needed exact dates and times in order to verify involvement. The residents living un-sheltered in this area could only recall a time frame of when they were approached by law enforcement.
In an email from late March, SCSO community engagement officer Sgt. Rebecca Lewis said Sgt. Ryan Boyer and deputies from the office of neighborhoods had “exhausted their efforts for all of the camps” along Ash Way.
“In a last ditch effort for outreach, I have given the occupants until Tuesday April 2nd before I will be actively enforcing trespassing. It will be gloves off after that,” Lewis said in an email to others at the sheriff’s department.
Lewis’ reference to “gloves off” meant that patrols should start trespassing residents if they saw them in the encampment, Ireton said in an interview. Cleared camps were on both county and privately owned land.
“We just enforce the laws and trespassing is illegal,” Ireton said, while acknowledging that arresting someone doesn’t cure them of their homelessness, addiction or mental health problems. She said they have no choice but to move these residents along and that “they can’t just live on someone else’s property.”
Ireton said there is no distinction made between public versus private property when working with homeless communities. The decision of when and if outreach efforts have been exhausted, and whether a camp should be swept, comes down to the person working most closely with the homeless in each instance, she added. These are generally social workers or deputies.
Encampments come with public health concerns including unsanitary living conditions, outdoor toilets, needles and garbage, Ireton said. Felons can be drawn to these places, she said, where they may prey on people actively using drugs.
In October 2018, the county advertised an invitation to bid for contracts of encampment cleanup services, according to bid applications obtained by the Reporter. The county’s intent was to award not only a primary call-out contract, but also a secondary and potentially tertiary contractor. The two-year contract, beginning in late 2018, was awarded to Bubbers, LLC which is based out of Burien.
Addendum documents state that “Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office will clear the site prior to the cleanup effort. If necessary the contractor can also request a deputy to be onsite during the cleanup.”
Ireton shared a brief history of the Ash Way property after speaking with deputies in the department. Earlier this year, property owners notified the sheriff’s office of the encampment in the area. Boyer and deputies from the office of neighborhoods visited these sites several times and offered those living there connections to services with housing.
A few of those contacted by Boyer left and possibly one or two sought services. The rest who remained were told several times that they could no longer live on the property and would be trespassed, Ireton said.
In late March, Lewis visited the camp and warned residents that they would be trespassed if they failed to leave. The county had planned on cleaning the property. When Lewis returned to the site, she again told residents they had to leave.
“There were some abandoned tents that were tied to some trees with twine,” Ireton said. “(Lewis) cut the twine to indicate to the cleanup crew who would be coming later that these tents were empty.”
A female resident at the camp told the Reporter that during the cleaning someone slashed her tent as she sat inside, and that she had little time to gather belongings for herself and her dog. The sheriff’s office denied slashing any tents while people were in them, but did say Lewis escorted the female resident to the tent so she could get her belongings.
“At no time that day — or any other day — did an employee from the sheriff’s office cut open a tent that had someone inside of it,” Ireton said.
However, the Reporter observed several tarps at multiple locations along Ash Way as well as along Alderwood Mall Parkway that had visible cut marks. Several campsites appeared to have been abandoned, with trash, half-filled propane tanks and destroyed shelters dotting the forest.
In previous reporting, the Reporter found several people residing in the area had lost the spots they called home both along Ash Way and further north along 128th Street Southwest. Un-sheltered people as well as homelessness advocates said deputies had conducted enforcement activities in recent weeks.
Representatives from the sheriff’s office at one point suggested the camp clearings may have been conducted by the Lynnwood Police Department when asked in early April, despite emails from Lewis showing the department was involved with camp clearing in late March.
Homeless advocates told reporters in previous coverage they had noticed a change in the way law enforcement was handling homelessness in Snohomish County since summer 2018. Instead of focusing on providing services as such, they said deputies had begun pushing people out of sheltered, often wooded areas and into the streets.
Several former residents of the Ash Way camps were served by New Heart Ministries, which holds weekly dinners at Park Ridge Community Church in Bothell.
And while church and community groups have one objective, Ireton said the perspective and goals of the office of neighborhoods differed.
“Our goal is to keep our communities and neighborhoods safe,” she said.