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A Conversation with Anne Larsen About Olympia Police Department's "Familiar Faces" Program

By Doria Maselli 

Approaching its first anniversary, I sat down with Anne Larsen, Outreach Coordinator with the Olympia Police Department, to discuss the “Familiar Faces” program. A partnership between the Olympia Police Department and Catholic Community Services, The Familiar Faces program identifies 15 -20 of the most vulnerable individuals Downtown and the most resistant to services and resources. The program uses peer navigators to help identify and assist individuals who have frequent and persistent contact with the Olympia Police Department’s Walking Patrol with complex health and behavioral problems.  

Almost 42% of Olympia Police Department officers reported that they encountered a “high utilizer” in crisis 15 or more times during a typical work week and over 63% indicated the cause of crisis as a combination of mental illness, substance use disorder and homelessness.

Different from traditional service providers, peer navigators offer a shared life experience and non-judgmental and unconditional support to those they are assisting. “One of the really unique aspects of the program is that we have formerly incarcerated individuals working alongside law enforcement with a common goal,” says Larsen. Peer navigators Keith and Melissa were formerly incarcerated and now use the knowledge they’ve acquired in reforming to help others who are vulnerable.

“We aim to operate with a ‘Conversation without an agenda’ mentality,” says Larsen. “We want to have meaningful and long-last connections with these people, not just approach them trying to fix an immediate need.”

Peer navigators can connect clients with services including mental health and substance use disorder treatment integrated with primary health care and skills development, permanent supportive housing, assertive outreach and engagement, trauma-informed care and harm reduction integrated care and care coordination.

Larsen shared with me the story of JR. Originally from Missouri, JR moved to Olympia and became homeless and addicted to drugs. One evening, he passed out on the train tracks at night at 7th and Jefferson, was hit by a train and lost both of his arms. JR ended up back on the streets of Olympia and continued to cause problems in downtown Olympia with aggressive and unruly behavior. But he was turned away from many treatment centers because he required additional services as an amputee.

Through help from the Familiar Faces program, he was able to be transported to Spokane for treatment; a peer stayed with him in a hotel for the night. After another round of falling off the wagon and using drugs again, JR was transported to treatment at Northwest Resources in Shelton and is now successfully living in a sober living facility and thriving in Allyn, WA. He will be recognized at a Familiar Faces anniversary celebration at the end of November. “One of the great things about the services this program provides is seeing people turn things around,” says downtown walking patrol officer Patrick Hutnick. “’We’ve seen people on their absolute worst days without their basic necessities fulfilled, and to see a different side of them later is incredibly rewarding.”

Familiar Faces is a true collaboration, partnership, and coordination between law enforcement, peer navigators, the corrections, prosecution and defense systems, treatment centers, care providers, housing providers and more. Downtown churches contribute to assist with supplies needed and local social service and hospital providers work together to assist clients with getting the appropriate services. “I sometimes call it ‘helicopter parenting,’ joked Larsen. But Familiar Faces is a true community partnership between several organizations, many people have “eyes on” the clients so we can ensure they’re getting the help that they need,” says Larsen. “A lot of these clients don’t have anyone for guidance or support, and we become their someone.”

The program received a 2019 Municipal Excellence Award from the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) and has been featured on King 5 News: https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/olympia-hires-former-inmates-for-homeless-outreach/281-b74851e9-7f8b-41fb-99ff-beb908703df3,  KXXO 96.1, May 19, 2019: “Anne Larsen talks about the Olympia Police Department’s New Familiar Faces Program,” and on KIRO Radio in Seattle August 6, 2019: Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross “Keith Whiteman, Post Prison Education and Familiar Faces.” Familiar Faces celebrates its one-year anniversary on November 27.

For more information, visit: http://olympiawa.gov/city-services/police-department/Crisis-Response-Peer-Navigator.aspx

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