New Hillsboro police program asks homeless what can be better
On a recent sunny afternoon, Mike Abshier stood, clipboard ready, outside the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry at St. Matthew Catholic Church.
The Hillsboro police officer was dressed for duty, his firearm at his side, his badge prominently displayed on his chest. A pair of sunglasses blocked out the bright May sunshine.
But Abshier wasn't here to make any arrests. He wasn't working a case and wasn't looking to question witnesses.
He had a simple question for the men and women who stopped by the food pantry: How can we better help you ?
Abshier is one of two new "homeless liaison officers" with the Hillsboro Police Department. He and Officer Jason Becker are tasked with working with local transients to find them resources, help and, eventually, housing.
But first, their supervisor Sgt. Dan O'Loughlin said, they need to know how many homeless people are living within the city, and what services they need.
Last week, Abshier and Becker spent their days traveling all over Hillsboro with a single mission, to speak with as many of Hillsboro's homeless as possible.
Officers interact with the homeless on a daily basis, Abshier said. Issues involving homelessness make up a sizeable number of calls to the department. That interaction has helped establish a relationship, of sorts, between the department and transients across the city.
Pieces of the puzzle
The idea isn't new for policing, Becker said. Plenty of police departments across the country have launched so-called crisis intervention teams to work with people who are struggling with homelessness and mental health issues.
"When police show up, it often puts people on their heels," Abshier said. "They aren't sure if they're going to get arrested. Our job is just to talk to people. We're trying to contact them not on an enforcement level. We just want to have a presence and ask, 'What can we do for you? We're here if you need us."
O'Loughlin and Abshier admit that police aren't the best people to tackle the complex issue of homelessness, but they are what's available.
"Police are limited with what we can do," Abshier said. "I can't sign people up for housing or get them treatment, but I can help them facilitate to get to those resources."
Most importantly, they can be someone to talk to, O'Loughlin said, and they can help get people access to services they may not be familiar with, like the Hawthorne Walk-In Center, a mental health and addition center on Elam Young Parkway which opened in 2017.
"We can help with certain pieces of the puzzle," O'Loughlin said.
O'Loughlin estimates there are between 100 and 200 homeless people living in the city at any given time. Many are homeless because of mental health issues, or drug or alcohol addiction. Others found themselves on the streets after they were evicted, or lost their job and were unable to afford the high rents afflicting the Portland area.
"It's not fair to compare the person injured on the job and living in his car with the person screaming on the sidewalk," Abshier said. "But when people close their eyes and think of homelessness, they all think of the same thing."
The city has seen an increase in calls for service regarding homelessness in recent years, but whether that's due to increased numbers or if the current population is becoming more visible as the city expands isn't clear, O'Loughlin said.
The city participates in the federal Point in Time counts each winter, a census to quantify the number of homeless people living in the county, but that program is reliant on volunteers, O'Loughlin said, and results from the counts haven't yielded accurate numbers.
"They didn't have enough volunteers," O'Loughlin said. "It's dark early in the winter. Nobody is going to volunteer to walk out into the camps in the woods in the dark."
Hillsboro paid employees to conduct the count this past winter, to get more accurate numbers, and police are conducting another count now, to see how those numbers compare.
As part of that count, officers are asking area transients about the services they use, and what they need. They're also asking what Hillsboro and other organizations that work with the homeless can do to address the issue.
"How can we work better?" O'Loughlin said. "There are services out there that can help people land job interviews, but they need to be able to call you back to make appointments. If you don't have a phone or access to one, how does that work? How do you take those existing services and fine tune them to make them work better?"
'Everyone wants a place to go'
Answers to this question run the gamut, Becker said. Many just want access to housing, others have called for more specific drug treatment programs to help people kick their addictions once and for all.
Some have said they'd like a place to throw away trash. Without access to garbage services, many homeless just leave their trash behind at camps, Becker said.
"One man told us that food boxes don't do him much good, as well meaning as they are," Becker said. "It just becomes garbage in the woods."
People living on the street often don't know what resources are available to them, Abshier said. And the services that are available are often difficult to access.
"Homeless people get jerked around a lot," Abshier said. "People will say, 'We need you to go here to talk about housing. We need you to fill out this application that costs money you don't have. But we can get them transportation, we can get them what they need. There are resources they can call to get on housing lists."
Many are blocked from accessing services due to alcohol or drug addiction, Abshier said. Many services for the homeless require participants to remain clean and sober. That may be something participants can do eventually, Abshier said, but that factor is often an insurmountable hurdle for many first looking for services.
"If you force them, it won't work," he said. "If they want to change their situation, I can be the person that helps facilitate the meetings they need. We may be able to help get that person into a treatment program."
In some cities, dealing with the homeless means little more than giving them a bus ticket to leave town, Abshier said, but the problem is multi-layered and complicated, dealing with mental health issues, addiction, problems with high rent and a lack of resources.
"People know they're not supposed to camp on private property, or on the sidewalk, but where do you want me to go?" Abshier said. "When you spend 16 hours a day trying to figure out where you're going to sleep that night, where do we really want them to go?
Hillsboro has few options to help people get off the street. Sonrise Church converts to a shelter on cold winter nights, but Hillsboro has no year-round homeless shelters, and shelters in Portland, Tigard and other nearby cities have wait lists.
"Everyone wants to have a place to go," O'Loughlin said. "We want it to be safe."
The one solution, Abshier said, is also the most difficult to provide.
"We could talk all day about all the problems with why homelessness isn't getting any better," Abshier said. "But if you narrow it down, there's just not enough housing, and the resources need to be more readily accessible for people."
By Geoff Pursinger
Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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