SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
Across the country, police agencies are re-evaluating how they handle people with addiction. Everett, Wash., is one place where, instead of just making arrests, officers now help people with addiction get the services they need. As Anna Boiko-Weyrauch of the Finding Fixes podcast reports, sometimes, a personal touch can make all the difference.
ANNA BOIKO-WEYRAUCH, BYLINE: Two key ingredients came together for Shannon McCarty in late 2017 - connections and timing.
SHANNON MCCARTY: The police showed up because they said they got a call that we were shooting up in the car.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Everett police Officer Inci Yarkut walked up to the window.
INCI YARKUT: I explained who I was and what my role in the police department was and what our program was about and provided her with my business card and, you know, said, hey. If there's something that we can do for you - because I think there are things that we can do for you and that we can help you - give me a call.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: That connection would prove vital for Shannon to get off heroin and meth. At the time, she was not doing well, Officer Yarkut remembered.
YARKUT: Very skinny, very pale - and so to see what she looks like today - first thing that came to mind is she has a big ole smile on her face. I mean, you can just see in her face what a changed person she is. And it's pretty awesome.
MCCARTY: (Laughter) It is awesome.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Shannon has tears in her eyes. She has been through a lot, starting from when she was a kid.
MCCARTY: Three words to describe my childhood - sad, lonely, maybe, and scared, I guess; sad, lonely and scared.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Being an adult wasn't much easier - chronic pain, mental illness, divorce, drugs. Shannon says she started smoking meth to deal with the long hours of working two jobs. Then she moved on to heroin, too - got hooked. After a few years, she was homeless and miserable. And finally, Shannon says, she was tired of being dope sick. She was just tired. She didn't want to do it anymore.
MCCARTY: You're not going to quit until you're ready. And I was so ready. And I decided that I didn't want to die anymore. I decided I wanted to live.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: That was when she met Officer Yarkut. Yarkut is a member of a special team at the Everett Police Department, created in 2016. Officers now partner with social workers to reach out to people with addiction living on the street and connect them to services they need.
YARKUT: The idea behind our team was to really focus on that outreach piece because just continually putting people in jail, putting people in jail, putting people in jail and having them come out and repeat that cycle of their drug use is not doing anything for them.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: The outreach doesn't always work the first time. But Shannon kept Officer Yarkut's number and eventually texted her. They're on a first-name basis.
MCCARTY: Oh, I have my message from my birthday that I sent you. It says, hello, Inci. I tried sending you a message a few weeks ago. I'm not sure if you got it. I was hoping to set up a time to meet with you for your help on the stuff we had talked about. I don't want to go to jail or have a record as I am just a lost, depressed - aww - hurt woman who has made a few poor choices, basically trying to end my life because I can't take pain and hurt anymore. I have lost a lot over the last three years, including my will, it seems. I don't want to be this judged person anymore. I just need some help. And I am not usually one to ask for help, but I want to be me again. I am sorry. And thank you for listening. And I hope to hear from you soon. Thank you for your time. Shan (ph). And then I gave you my other number (laughter). And then you said...
YARKUT: I said, hi, Shannon. I never got a message from you. I'm so happy to hear from you. I would love to meet and see if we can help you out. You can call or text me or come by the police department and ask for me. Please hang on. We'll help you.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: They're taking it step by step. Step one - stop being dope sick. Stop using heroin. Shannon got some Suboxone off a friend. That's not legal, but it's how a few people have told us they started to get off heroin. Suboxone, also known as Buprenorphine, is a proven drug to treat opioid addiction. Step two - get addiction treatment the legal way. With Officer Yarkut's business card, Shannon set up meetings with the police officers and social workers. Step three through - oh, I don't know - step 173 - set up a new life. That means Shannon needs a lot of appointments for drug treatment, counseling and housing. She needs some way to get around.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC PASSING)
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: OK. Can you describe where we are?
YARKUT: We're at the Everett Station, which is the train/bus station.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Officer Yarkut is helping Shannon get a bus card.
YARKUT: Hi, how are you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good, how are you?
YARKUT: Good. So she filled out her application to get the reduced fare.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Shannon gets her picture taken.
MCCARTY: Oh, this is going to be a horrible picture. I have no makeup on.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Say this in the microphone.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One, two and three.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: And then she's done.
YARKUT: Thank you.
MCCARTY: (Laughter) It's a horrible picture.
YARKUT: It's a bus card. I don't think anybody's picture would look good on that thing.
MCCARTY: Yeah (laughter).
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: So many little things can build on each other. Even really little things are important, like a few words from a loved one marking her days of being off drugs.
MCCARTY: And since day nine, my sister Saundi (ph) - she sends me a message every single day. And it says happy day whatever I'm on. And I told her, I said, you do not know or realize how much those three little words mean to me every single day.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Those little pieces built on each other. Ten months later, Shannon has her own place - a low-rent studio apartment in a building in downtown Everett for people who used to be homeless. It's a single room with a bed, a couch and piles of her stuff - soup cans, a coffee machine and a fridge.
MCCARTY: Anyways, this is my apartment. I have a toilet. And then we have shared showers, shared kitchen.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Shannon has a new dog, too - a chubby, little pug-Chihuahua-wiener dog mix.
MCCARTY: Hi, buddy. Hi, baby doggy.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Shannon has now been sober for around a year and a half. She texted Officer Yarkut to let her know. Every day, no matter what - rain, snow, or sunshine - Shannon takes her dog outside.
MCCARTY: Come on, babe.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Compared to when she was on drugs and living in a car, Shannon says she's come a long way.
MCCARTY: Go for a little walkie-walk (ph).
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Life is still a struggle, but she says she's trying really hard.
For NPR News, I'm Anna Boiko-Weyrauch.
DAVIS: This story comes to us from Finding Fixes, a podcast about solutions to the opioid epidemic.