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A family of 6 pitched tent in Forest Park — then help arrived

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EVERETT — About a month ago, on a cold mid-October night, with nowhere else to turn, the Schnabel family — Mom, Dad, four kids and a dog — pitched a tent and slept in Everett’s Forest Park.

Tonight, they’ll drift off in bunk beds at Mary’s Place family shelter in Burien.

The weeks in between were filled with fear and anxiety, but also gratitude and relief, according to Julie Copeland, 33, the family matriarch who does not share the last name of her children or boyfriend.

With assistance from the Everett Police Department’s Community Outreach and Enforcement Team, a specialized unit of police and social workers, the Schnabels went from homeless and hopeless to having a foundation for the future.

“It was a bad experience that somehow wasn’t so bad,” Copeland said.

Like many others, the family’s bout with homelessness began with a rent increase on their home, a three-bedroom, rent-to-own in Wichita, Kansas. The place became unaffordable, other living situations fell through and an opportunity arose for the family to move to Washington where Copeland grew up.

“We were already in a mess and I thought coming back here would be a good thing,” she said.

Mom, dad, James, 35, the kids, Alex, 13, Lillian, 11, Micah, 9, Naomi, 7, and the faithful pup, Pippin, made the five-day trek to the Pacific Northwest. On arrival, they bounced around with brief stays with friends and family before spending the last of their fixed income on a motel room.

Out of all other options and dropped off in Forest Park, the family assembled a tent, climbed in and hunkered down.

The next morning, an Everett park ranger spotted the tent. The Community Outreach and Enforcement Team was called and officer Kevin Davis and social worker Kelli Roark paid the family a visit.

“They were basically in survival mode,” Davis said, unable to consider how to fix the situation as they grappled with basic necessities of food and security.

Copeland remembers hearing the call of “Everett Police” outside the fabric of their 10-person tent. Overwhelmed by fear and embarrassment, she apologized for the illegal camping and prayed for a solution that wouldn’t separate her from the kids.

A big family is an uncommon customer for Davis and Roark, but the duo said they immediately went to work finding a solution. With local shelters full or unwilling to take on the entire group, the team dipped into funds from a Snohomish County grant to put the Schnabels in a motel.

“They reassured my children that everything would be fine, and it really was,” Copeland said. “The fact that we were finally able to get the help we needed, that’s where I just took a deep breath and I felt OK. I didn’t feel stressed about it, I was just grateful.”

With a roof over their head and stomachs full of hot food provided by the Marysville School District McKinney-Vento program, the outreach officers put the onus on the family to find a solution. Roark provided a resource list and Copeland went to work making phone calls to shelters.

“That family was willing and able to take the service we offered at the moment and work toward going somewhere from there,” Roark said. “They didn’t want to have to live in the situation they were living in, they wanted to take that other option.”

The work of the community outreach team in Everett isn’t always smooth. Created in 2015 to address the revolving door of citations or jail for individuals experiencing homelessness, the program offers outreach services unmatched by other organizations serving the city.

“Instead of waiting for people to come into service providers, we get to bring people to them, we get to offer them services,” Roark said. “They often don’t know where they can turn for help. We are receiving them where they’re at and letting them know that there is help and hope.”

After five days of calls around the region, Copeland said the family received a timely stroke of luck, the last available spot at Mary’s Place shelter in Burien.

On the drive south on I-5 to their new-found salvation, Copeland said her children noticed the tent cities lining the freeway.

“My kids were like, ‘Oh my god, that could be us,’” she recalled. “Yeah, it could be.”

After experiencing homelessness, it’s hard to imagine considering yourself lucky, but Copeland does. She said there are other families in the same humbling situation that have not yet been helped.

It’s bittersweet knowing what it feels like to have nothing, Copeland said. She hopes to get her children on track in school and find affordable income-based housing for her family. She credits the hand-up from Davis and Roark for the family’s optimistic outlook.

“Everybody ends up hard on their luck but it is a learning experience, you’ve got to learn from it and rise above that and never end up in that situation again,” Copeland said.

Individuals experiencing homelessness interested in service from the Community Outreach and Enforcement Team can leave a voicemail at 425-257-6699, make contact at the police department’s main precinct, 3002 Wetmore Ave., or ask any Everett police officer for a referral.

“When you’re ready, if you feel like this is your moment, you can come back here and ask for help,” Roark said.

Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; idavisleonard@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.

Ian Davis-Leonard reports on working class issues through Report for America, a national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. To support Ian’s work at The Daily Herald with a tax-deductible donation, go to www.heraldnet.com/support.

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