MOUNT VERNON — The Mount Vernon Police Department’s initiative to put a social worker onto the police force now has a face.
Erin Von Fempe joined the department in early March and has spent the past several weeks working with officers to determine her responsibilities as outreach coordinator.
Once she gets situated, Von Fempe will respond to safe calls involving the homeless and will try to connect them with homeless or behavioral health services.
She won’t provide services herself, but rather direct those in need to organizations such as Community Action of Skagit County.
“The hope is to help people access services they need in order to improve their lives,” Von Fempe said.
Von Fempe worked for a mental health organization in Southern California for 23 years, eventually becoming a program supervisor. She said she moved to Mount Vernon to be closer to family.
Lt. Mike Moore, who heads up the patrol division at the department, said he was apprehensive when Chief Jerry Dodd first pitched the social worker idea to him.
“I had great reservations at first,” he said. “It’s not a typical enforcement role.”
However, he said research opened his eyes to the position’s potential to do good.
Providing assistance to the homeless is not traditionally a law enforcement job, but it has increasingly been thrust upon law enforcement because it’s unclear who else should handle it.
“(Law enforcement) is called because people don’t know what to do,” Moore said.
With a social worker on staff, he said the department will be able to approach homelessness in the city in a more productive way.
The two-year pilot program, funded by the city and Skagit County, is based on similar programs in Snohomish County, said Sarah Hinman, behavioral health and housing coordinator with Skagit County.
The Mount Vernon City Council agreed in June to a funding agreement with the county. The county will provide $120,000 over the two years of the pilot program, while the city will contribute $60,000.
Hinman said her office will monitor and evaluate the program, with the possibility of extending it or moving it to other departments.
She said she hopes the program will help those who haven’t been introduced to services such as those provided by Community Action.
“(These agencies) mostly rely on people walking in on their own,” she said.