By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – Day in and day out, Kitsap police officers and fire and rescue personnel come into contact with individuals dealing with a variety of issues involving substance abuse and mental health to some having suicidal thoughts and struggling with being homeless.
There are services readily available locally that can help those individuals. But first responders —typically first at the scene in contact with those in crisis — are not equipped with the training nor have the time to connect them with the appropriate social services that would directly improve their lives.
That’s where a “navigator” comes in — a trained person who receives a referral from a first responder and then works to get the person needing assistance in contact with services in the community.
In February, the Port Orchard Police Department and South Kitsap Fire and Rescue joined forces to hire and then share the services of a navigator. As a result, Melissa Stern was brought in as the new community health navigator for the two agencies.
“Our mission is to assist the community with a connection to treatment, resources and services during and after contact with first responders,” Stern said.
“We don’t provide treatment or do side-of-the-road crisis therapy. If I were to carry a caseload and track people, it would be full in a day and I wouldn’t be able to help anyone else. My main goal is to work with people on a short-term basis and get them connected.”
Here is an example of how a navigator operates in coordination with police and fire district personnel:
Paul (not his real name), 62, became homeless after using all of his rent and savings to pay for his daughter’s funeral. He lived out of his car that was parked in fast food or shopping center parking lots. He came to the attention of the police when he called 911 to report that people were using drugs in the area and had been harassing him. Police officers referred him to the navigator. Grief had overwhelmed Paul, preventing him from focusing on obtaining housing. The navigator helped him obtain financial assistance and arranged tours of assisted living facilities. In the end, Paul was able to move into stable housing.
The navigator provides invaluable assistance to first responders, according to Port Orchard Police Chief Matt Brown.
“We don’t have the ability to do really good law enforcement and also try and navigate people who have dependency or major mental health issues. That’s not in our wheelhouse,” Brown said.
“We can say, ‘Look, we really want to help this person but [officers] are not the tool for it. But, having Melissa right here, we can get the person to where they need to be.’ Our goal is always to help community members,” the police chief said.
”She gives us that extra layer to be able to do so.”
Here’s another example of how a navigator assists people in need:
Bri and Val, both in their early 30s, had been living out of their car. The pair had racked up 208 interactions with police and 23 arrests. Their car was stopped for expired license tabs. When the officer came up to the driver’s window, drugs and drug paraphernalia were in open view. The two expressed a desire to get into treatment and get their lives back on track. The navigator was called in. After three unsuccessful attempts to get the duo into treatment, the navigator convinced a family member to take in the couple, which was difficult since they had burned bridges with most other family members. After they safely detoxed, the navigator got Bri and Val into a residential treatment program. They successfully completed the substance abuse program and now reside in clean and sober housing.
Stern said she puts in 20 hours a week with each department.
South Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Jeff Faucett echoed Brown’s endorsement of having a navigator on staff.
“She has significantly helped our medical division,” Faucett said.
Stern has helped a wide variety of individuals, including many elderly people. After one senior had suffered a fall at home, the navigator connected that person with a county geriatric care agency and arranged to have safety handrails installed in the person’s home.
Stern has also provided practical assistance to seniors, helping some to sign up for insurance and arranging for others to get prescriptions delivered to their homes, Faucett said.
“She started with [SKFR] this year but I wish we had her five years ago,” Faucett said.
Dan, 15, had alcohol issues and had been kicked out of school. The youth was having an increasing number of contacts with law enforcement for assaults, car prowling and for robbing a liquor store. The navigator was enlisted because of the youth’s escalating behavior. After coordinating with his parents, the navigator set up Dan with a psychiatrist and got him placed into a 60-day behavioral health and chemical dependency program. Today, the teenager is clean and sober and back in school.
Stern has 14 years of experience in the social services field. She has worked with individuals with substance abuse and mental health issues, and with the developmentally disabled. While at Community Psychiatric Clinic in Seattle, she helped mentally ill clients enter the workforce. After moving to Bremerton, she worked at Kitsap Mental Health Services and supervised the adult in-patient unit for three years.
Early on, Stern knew she wanted to make the world a better place. She grew up “very sheltered” in Southern California’s suburban Orange County. After seeing homelessness grow in Los Angeles and the increased discrepancies between affluent and impoverished neighborhoods there, she committed herself to make a difference.
Kitsap County’s navigator program began in 2015 with the trained professionals assisting in municipal courts, helping clients obtain treatment and services, and remain on their court-ordered plan. The success of navigators in helping individuals turn their lives around attracted the attention of area police administrators who believed navigators could help some of the citizens that their officers increasingly encountered.
By 2018, navigators were embedded in all four of the county’s city police departments – Port Orchard, Bremerton, Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island.
Funding for Port Orchard’s police department navigator had been funded for three years by a grant underwritten by a local tax dedicated for behavioral health treatment. As that funding came to an end, the Port Orchard City Council agreed to continue funding to maintain the navigator position, the police chief said.
“It’s worth every penny,” Brown said.