Police, social workers to make monthly patrols of homeless camps

It's no secret the city of Gresham's park system is underfunded, but city staff hopes to combat some of the public's negative impressions by taking small steps in the near future while staying within the budget.

At the Gresham City Council meeting April 1, Bernard Seeger, finance and service director, gave a presentation on the state of the parks system along with Public Affairs Director Robin Franzen Parker and Police Chief Craig Junginger.

The challenge for the parks department is a lack of recreational programming due to budget cuts, which also caused a decline in maintenance, Seeger said.

“It's harder and harder for our reduced staff to handle the graffiti and vandalism we see in our parks,” he said. “The second thing is this decline in programming. We're reduced to small things since the community terminated its recreational program a few years ago, and that adds to those negative perceptions.”

Add to that more homeless and transient people coming into the parks over the past few years, leading to “an increase in unwelcome behavior," Seeger said.

Seeger said staff researched what other communities with limited resources have done and found that a multi-faceted approach works best.

That approach includes increased security, marketing to the community, using design elements to enhance use and discourage unwanted behavior, and recruiting positive activity.

“That speaks to recreational programming, to more outreach and bringing better amenities to the parks so that good behavior will arguably push out the bad behavior,” he said.

But safety comes first, and Junginger told the council of several plans that won't strain the budget and ideas for the future, if and when funding increases.

One step will even be fun for both officers and citizens.

“We will begin a Saturday morning community bike ride, with several police officers leading citizens from Main City Park down the Springwater Trail and then back,” he said.

The police department will continue to use volunteers to patrol the parks and trails through its citizen volunteer program as well as using police cadets, he said.

But police also will make monthly forays to address the homeless and transient issue, Junginger said.

“Beginning this month, there will be coordinated monthly missions with police and social services providers who will contact the people, remove their camps and offer assistance by connecting them with appropriate needed services,” he said.

If future funding becomes available, Junginger suggested hiring a full-time officer to be a parks resource officer, or possibly hire two limited-term park rangers for May through October and then one officer the rest of the year.

Franzen Parker said staff suggested collecting data on the parks by conducting surveys and focus groups, but both Mayor Shane Bemis and Councilor Karylinn Echols indicated that they wanted to see some improvements in the parks first.

One recent low-cost improvement is the new off-leash dog run at Main City Park, Franzen Parker said, and the Japanese Garden at the park will officially open June 28 after “an amazing rejuvenation.”

Echols suggested having citizens "adopt a trail" to help maintain the city's parks, but stressed that something must be done soon.

"We have no more time to not come up with solutions," she said. "We'll never have the resources we need, but we need to do something, because before long there will be nothing left to salvage."

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