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Clackamas County law enforcement, community leaders say it takes a village to solve issue of homelessness

COURTESY PHOTO - Volunteers and staff at NAMI Clackamas prepare care bags to distribute to community members.

While many nonprofit volunteers work tirelessly to aid those without shelter, there is still a stigma around unhoused people. This stigma — fear of those who exhibit behaviors congruent with mental illness — often leads to reports of unhoused people to police as "suspicious persons."

Sandy Police Chief Ernie Roberts told Pamplin Media Group that the department receives several calls regarding unhoused people, ranging in severity from the presence of "suspicious persons" to unwanted camping to issues involving inebriation or an episode related to mental illness.

As the unhoused population has fluctuated, so have the number of these calls.

The Clackamas County Sheriff's Office, which provides law enforcement services in the city of Estacada and the county's unincorporated areas, sees similar calls related to homeless individuals. These often initially come in as welfare checks, mental health incidents, trespassing, burglary or theft.

Sgt. Marcus Mendoza, public information officer for the sheriff's office, said protocol for these calls "depends on the circumstances."

"If we have an interaction with someone who's shoplifted, with COVID, the jail isn't accepting as many people," she said. "During normal times, if a person has committed a crime, they're transported to the jail and go through the booking process. When they're released, they can go to our transition center."

The center is across from the jail in Oregon City and has resources related to mental health services, housing and employment.

"We don't just want to kick people out the door," Mendoza said. "The likelihood of offending again is high if they don't have money or resources. They might commit a crime to get food, and they'll be back where they were. We want to prevent a revolving door situation from happening."

Welfare checks are also common.

"One resident called about a person on the corner they see every day, and the temperature has dropped. Another person called because they saw someone lying on the ground, and we approached that call from a medical aspect," Mendoza said. "Those calls definitely go up in extreme temperatures."

Deputies carry gift cards distributed by the sheriff's office chaplain and care packages donated by nonprofit groups in the county to give to unsheltered community members.

Deputies sometimes receive calls about homeless camps, though this does not happen as often in the rural areas of the county.

"We check on people's welfare and offer services," Mendoza said.

Deputies are sometimes joined by members of the county's behavioral health unit, because people who are chronically homeless are often living with concerns related to mental health or substance abuse.

Mendoza said it's valuable to have clinicians on calls with them to ensure people are able to connect with services.

"You can't just give someone a phone number and say, 'call this number,'" he said.

Stacy England, with the county mental health program, said she receives numerous referrals from concerned community members and law enforcement alike, seeking aid for houseless persons with mental illness.

Fortunately, the county does have mobile services available, though the downside is they are dispatched from the clinic on 82nd Avenue in Portland, making them about a 40-minute drive away from rural Estacada and Sandy. COURTESY PHOTO: SANDY POLICE DEPARTMENT - Sandy Police are often the ones tasked with cleaning up encampments when unhoused folks make temporary shelters in town. The city is in the process of creating a taskforce to address homelessness and help the unhoused in Sandy.

"Police do call the crisis line to access our mobile clinicians when they would like that clinical eye (present) when they encounter a person experiencing a mental health condition," England explained. She did cite the "challenge" of the commute to Sandy for calls, but added that "we are very happy to be out there serving the community."

Those who England's team makes contact with can take their aid a step further than just providing assistance in that moment. Through the county, the crisis team can connect unhoused people in need with case workers to get them long-term help.

County LEADs on resources

Bill Stewart, community prosecutor for the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office, said he does see law enforcement as needing to be involved in situations related to homelessness, but also that "we aren't going to fix this by arresting our way out of this."

"We have to find ways to get these people off of the streets," he explained, adding that rehabilitating unhoused persons often takes the help of non-law enforcement groups. "The last person people want to see is someone who looks like me and represents the system."

Stewart works with the county resource LEAD or the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program. This program is a collaboration between The Clackamas County District Attorney's Office, the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office, Health, Housing and Human Services and Central City Concern, which, according to the county website, "seeks to reduce future criminal behavior by individuals involved in low level drug offenses in a targeted geographical area that has a higher population of the chronically homeless (with the goal being) to emphasize addiction treatment on the front end of the criminal justice process."

Oftentimes there is a great deal of intersection between mental health, behavioral health, criminality and houselessness, and LEAD case workers network with health professionals to best serve those who fit into this category.

Making health a focus

Michele Veenker, executive director of the Clackamas branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she has become hopeful as discussions evolve around improving interactions with unhoused people.

"I'm excited about the change in outlook that not every call needs police presence," she said, adding that it's important for responders to know how to communicate with people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

Veenker said that finding housing for people living with mental illness is one of the most frequent concerns they encounter.

"Either they can't afford it or there's barriers in place because of their symptoms," she said. "We get a lot of elderly parents who are looking at senior living for themselves and don't know what will happen to the person they're caring for."

In Clackamas County's 2019 point-in-time count, mental or emotional health issues were among the top five causes of homelessness, with 110 respondents saying that it applied to them.

People with mental health concerns "often don't fit the norm of what's expected" in housing, Veenker said.

"Some people can't maintain housing, maybe because they're noisy or say things that bother people," she added, noting that many places require people to be clean, sober and able to control their symptoms.

With people with mental illness end up unsheltered, tasks that may seem easy become more complex.

"There are so many more layers of difficulty, like trying to keep hold of your medication, managing when to take it and having food if you need to take it with food," Veenker said.

She thinks a housing first model, which prioritizes providing permanent housing to people who are unsheltered, would be particularly beneficial.

"If people are safely housed, and you provide them with services, they'll be successful. If their basic needs are met, they're more likely to follow through on other things," she said.

"I don't think law enforcement should be the tip of the spear, so to speak, anymore, as the problems have not been solved," Chief Roberts said.

He also expressed excitement about being involved in the city's proposed homelessness task force.

"I think going at it with a fresh set of eyes for everybody, in a new direction is really exciting," he added. "I'm happy to be part of this."

This is part three of a four-part series on homelessness and helping the unhoused in Clackamas County, specifically in Sandy and Estacada. Part four will be featured in next week's edition of the Sandy Post and Estacada News. Read part one and part two online.

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