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Looking for a woman named Shelly and her six kittens

Deputy Bud McCurry sets up his laptop in the patrol car. He's heading into a wooded area in South Everett where homeless heroin users have been camping out.

Two social workers are with him – Jesse Calliham and Lauren Rainbow. They discuss a woman named Shelly, who has six kittens and is on the verge of agreeing to detox. 

For months, the team has been reaching out to Shelly and others in the encampment. The sheriff’s office has given notice and people must move out by the end of the month. Before that happens, McCurry and the social workers are offering to connect them with services. 

“We’re trying to motivate them to accept our services before that move out date,” McCurry says. “The last thing we want to do is move them to the next set of woods. That accomplishes nothing.”

Related: For this Jungle resident, methadone is the "shield that I need"

McCurry is one of three deputies assigned to the Office of Neighborhoods to deal with homeless encampments that have been popping up around the county: Lake Stevens, Arlington, Marysville, Edmonds.

“There are only so many of us,” he says, “and it’s a big county.”

County officials hope Proposition 1 will provide relief. If voters approve the sales tax increase, it would generate about $25 million a year. The plan is to hire 35 deputies over the next three years and to add four more social workers in the mix.

Some money would pay for drug and alcohol treatment. That, plus transitional housing and social services people will need along the way. It’s not the whole solution to a complex problem.

Sheriff Ty Trenary says it’s not easy to ask voters for more money, but the situation is urgent.

“We’re not asking for voters to give us money so we can figure it out. We have it figured out,” Trenary says. “We just want to expand it – add services and follow the path that we’ve had success with for a year.”

Since the Office of Neighborhoods was created a year ago, 55 people have completed detox. Thirty-one have graduated from treatment.

Related: One question inspired this woman to survive and fight King County's heroin epidemic

This is not your traditional policing – cops chasing criminals. Deputy McCurry’s role is more like being an ambassador, focused on building relationships. He calls the people in camps "clients," not suspects. It’s an unusual way to fight crime, he says, but the traditional approach hasn’t been effective, especially with heroin users. 

“We can put people in jail for weeks, months,” McCurry says, “but then we release them out of jail with no resources, no tools in the toolbox, and they go right back to the same exact environment they were in and they start using their drugs again.”

At the site, the first stop is to check on Shelly, the lady with the kittens. The camp is empty.

“Looks like there’s been a bit of a fire,” Rainbow says.

Deputy McCurry searches under the charred debris.

No sign of Shelly. But the kittens are alive. Someone has left them food and water.

The group heads in to the woods to look for Shelly. Along the way they check up on other campers and offer help.

Finally they find her. Shelly has been staying with Ryea, a friend at the encampment.

“I was wondering what the hell happened over there,” McCurry says. “I was worried about you.”

Ryea tells them Shelly doesn’t want to come out. McCurry reminds her of the deadline to move. Ryea says she’ll be gone tomorrow. McCurry asks if she’s given any thought about getting help.

“I’m not ready for that,” Ryea says.

“What’s holding you back from getting the help you need?” McCurry asks. “I know you have some pain issues.”

They talk about her pain issues. She’s skeptical she’ll be able to get adequate pain medication.

McCurry makes another attempt to convince Shelly to accept their help. She declines. Not today.

Back in the patrol car, McCurry says he’s not discouraged.

“One day they’ll come out to us and say you know what, I’m ready for some help because they found their own rock bottom,” he says. 

Year started with KUOW: 1994