Clackamas County finding success with drug diversion
Glen Suchanek believes the most impactful way to support homeless individuals dealing with all the effects poverty brings is to meet them where they're at.
Suchanek is a screening and outreach coordinator with Central City Concern, one of the Portland area's most visible nonprofits working with homeless populations to provide stability through health care, job services and housing support.
Suchanek's job is to hit the streets of Clackamas County to connect with those who are in most need of help, whether that's something small like helping someone secure state-issued identification so they can find a job, or larger problems like identifying the best options for entering addiction and substance abuse disorders.
Oftentimes when Suchanek meets his clients, it's in the booth of a McDonald's where he's buying them a hot meal and completing their intake screening, or visiting the camper where they've been living to make sure they're warm enough or check on their safety.
"It's just more powerful I think when they're like, 'Wow, you're actually coming to me?'" Sulchanek said. "Because how many people that are houseless actually make it to an appointment, you know? When you got no transportation, you got no alarm clock to tell you when the appointment is, so I think the really important part is that we meet people where they're at."
Suchanek and his fellow case managers at Central City Concern have received some major support for their work in recent years thanks to a budding partnership that involves key departments of Clackamas County's government. That partnership involves collaborative efforts from the county's Health, Housing and Human Services Department, the district attorney's office, sheriff's office and Community Corrections Division, all of which has led to the success of a somewhat new program aimed at helping keep perpetual offenders of low-level drug possession and other petty crimes out of prison.
The program is known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). It was initiated back in 2017 after a handful of Clackamas County officials took a trip to Seattle to learn about a new pilot program King County was implementing at the time. Instead of locking people up who were consistently landing themselves in front of a judge, King County worked with local law enforcement, prosecutors and public health officials to connect those individuals with services such as supportive housing, help finding a job and substance-abuse treatment.
The program capitalizes on a paradigm shift currently taking hold in overlaps between criminal justice and public health systems: sending non-violent, low-level drug offenders to jail isn't fixing the growing epidemic of addiction, poverty and homelessness.
According to Bill Stewart, Clackamas County's deputy district attorney and community prosecutor, the county liked what it saw in Seattle, and they decided to bring those ideas back to Oregon and begin new partnerships with law enforcement and nonprofit agencies to begin affecting change.
Over the past two years, Suchanek has built strong connections with people like Stewart in order to help them better understand how poverty, homelessness, addiction and crime are intertwined.
Both Suchanek and Stewart admit that the partnership they've grown is a bit unorthodox — the pair are as likely partners as Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.
But it's Suchanek's lived experience as a former drug user who served eight years in prison that gives him perspective with which to connect to those the program is seeking to help.
"I've been houseless. I used meth for 21 years. I've been to prison," Suchanek said. "I don't know everybody's story or what they're going through, but I've been there."
According to Stewart, it's Suchanek's ability — and others like him — to connect and communicate with the target population of the LEAD program that has made it so successful in recent years with more than 160 individuals receiving help.
"When I first saw Glen, I frankly was not really wild about the idea of partnering with him," Stewart said. "I've done a 180 on that, and I'm now at a point where I see this guy as a critical piece to making this program work."
Central City Concern's case workers are trained to have the skills and experience to broker the services that the district attorney's office and law enforcement want these individuals facing drug or other charges to connect with. Suchanek himself holds several certifications including as an alcohol and drug counselor, a certified recovery mentor and qualified mental health associate.
Their main task is to help people navigate these systems that aren't particularly easy to navigate and guide them as they seek to make positive changes in their life with the help of both the courts and county public health.
For Erica Thygesen, LEAD program manager with Central City Concern, the message that she believes is the biggest takeaway on this program's impact is that it removes substance abuse disorders from the criminal justice system and treats them as a health condition.
"It's a harm-reduction approach, which is kind of an alternative and a contrast to a lot of programs that work with folks who are actively engaged in substance use," Thygesen said. "That really recognizes that people have all kinds of different pathways to change, and a lot of times we create responses that puts a lot of pressure on people."
According to Thygesen, sometimes these rigid responses — such as telling some they need to get clean in 30 days or else they'll be kicked out of a treatment program — don't allow people to take the time they need to build healthy relationships with trusted community members that are critical to their ability to change. Thygesen said those relationships built by case managers like Suchanek are what drive change that lasts.
"I think LEAD is a huge win for Clackamas County," she said. "I feel like there's been an openness and a curiosity among these partners to do what is going to work to improve community health, well-being and public safety."
Stewart said he agrees. He believes the program benefits everyone involved when an individual is diverted because they're no longer taking up precious resources within the criminal justice system, and the life of the individual is improved dramatically due to the efforts of case managers to connect them with the services they need to get better and find stability.
According to Stewart, it's important to make the distinction that the LEAD program is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, and, in fact, he understands that the program's participants are likely to run afoul of the law again.
"What we try to do is coordinate outcomes in those new cases or existing cases that are consistent with what the work that LEAD folks are trying to do, so if they're working to get them into treatment, for instance, or housing. We try to make sure the outcomes of the new cases or existing cases support that direction," he said. "We're trying to be intelligent about how we approach these things. And don't get me wrong, I'm a hard-nosed (prosecutor). I love being a district attorney, and my job is to make this community safer, but I think this is the most cost-effective way I've seen to address this kind of repetitive behavior and challenges that we face in the criminal justice system."
Clackamas County's LEAD program received some welcome news in October, with a $900,000 grant to continue the program after it seemed county budget cuts forced by the COVID-19 pandemic threatened its demise.
According to Adam Freer — director of the county's Children, Family and Community Connections Division — this new grant won't only allow the program to continue, but it will also expand the collaboration and coordination between the county, Central City Concern, the sheriff's office and district attorney.
"The bigger picture is that there are a lot of great, exciting and innovating things happening in terms of responding to substance abuse," Freer said. "What's exciting to me is that we've been able to convince the federal government that not only is there an issue here that needs to be addressed, but there are solid enough ideas to invest in. So it's validation of the county's approach and gives us the ability to take it to the next level."
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