TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Police officer Brian Orth checks on a tent off of a Tigard trail. Orth, along with his partner Heather Wakem, consistently reach out to the homeless community to see whom they can help get off the street.When Kathleen Cain finally found housing, there was one person she wanted to tell.

“I couldn’t wait to tell Heather,” she said.

Cain, 50, is homeless and has lived on the streets for several months, but recently found an agency in Hillsboro willing to help get her back on her feet.

But Heather Wakem isn’t her social worker or her friend. She’s a police officer with the Tigard Police Department.

Four months ago, Wakem and officer Brian Orth began a crusade of sorts.

They wanted to address the city’s large homeless population. While several local agencies in the area have worked to provide showers and warmth from the winter cold for the area’s homeless, Orth and Wakem have a simper idea: They want to get them off the streets for good.

“I noticed that things were coming to a head,” said Orth, a Tigard police officer for the past nine years. “I noticed a lot of calls, people saying there were camps over here or over there. I thought, ‘Let’s get down and dirty with it.’”

Often, Orth said, police are forced to handle homeless camps through enforcement, arresting people who trespass on private property or posting notices for camps to break up.

“We do that on occasion,” Orth said. “Our absolute last resource is to arrest someone.”

But that doesn’t solve the problem, Orth said, it just moves homeless people from camp to camp. Many people could be off the streets if they could get access to housing, to treatment or benefits they already qualify for but don’t have ways to access.

Wakem said she worked with a man who was spending what little money he had on food, when he qualified for SNAP benefits. Others have court-ordered community service they need to complete in order to qualify for housing, but don’t go through the steps to complete it.

Orth and Wakem make a habit of heading off the beaten path to find seldom-seen homeless camps scattered across the city.

“We interview people,” Orth said. “We ask them hold old they are, whether they need housing or senior services, what benefits they have. There are so many different types of people and situations that lend them to being homeless.”

Orth and Wakem said they wanted to do more than just address problems as they arose.

“The average beat officer will go out and address a complaint, but we take it a step farther.”Heather Wakem speaks with homeless Tigard residents.

Social work

Orth and Wakem’s approach is more social work than police work, they admit, but for Wakem, it’s what needs to happen if concrete steps are to be taken to address homelessness.

“As cops, we’re signing up to be there for the worst day of people’s lives,” Wakem said. “For these folks, it’s the worst day of their life every day. What’s the proverb? ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick?’ They don’t have a lot of hope. It’s hard to take that first step if you don’t see any future. Having officers come to them and say, ‘We’ll hold your hand and get you through this to the next step’ is what a lot of folks really need.”

Orth said he isn’t sure how many homeless people live in the city, but said that the issue has become more and more visible in Tigard as the city has expanded and developed over the years.

“It’s not just a Tigard issue,” said Wolf. “It’s in Beaverton, Hillsboro, Portland, of course.”

Although hard numbers aren’t available, Orth estimates that one quarter of the chronically homeless he has worked with have been able to get housing.

“They get sick of us bugging them about it,” Wakem said.

“It’s above and beyond,” she said. “It’s really awesome. You come to expect a certain treatment from police, but when Heather saw I wanted to help, she followed through and met me to go over things. It’s amazing, the time they are putting in.”

Robert Johnson, 28, lives in a tent behind the Tigard Pubic Library. He said he’d been back there for five months when he met Orth and Wakem.

“Nobody even knew I was there,” he said. “They just happened to discover me.”

Johnson said he is used to working with police, but was surprised when they began asking about his plans to get off the street.

“They gave me a card and asked if I’d be willing to work with them to get housing and check with (Department of Veterans Affairs),” Johnson said. “Those were things I’d been looking into, but the government websites are just a maze and my phone service is out.”

Johnson expected the officers to forget about him, but said he met with Wakem on her day off to talk about getting him housing through an agency in Beaverton and a job that she had heard about.

“I’ve never met a police officer that was that nice,” he said. “It shocked the hell out of me. I assumed it was a setup somehow, but it wasn’t.”

Cain, who has lived on the streets in several cities across Oregon and Washington, had a similar reaction.

“It’s supposed to be ‘Protect and Serve’ but where is the ‘serve?’” she said. “It’s always missing from police. That’s not how it is with these guys. It’s the first I’ve seen anything like this in a long time.”

Cain said that having someone like Wakem checking up on her, it’s given her a chance she hasn’t have before.

“They encourage me and help me feel safe,” she said. “I have anxiety issues so it’s hard to motivate myself to get out and do things. I’ve never had good experiences with cops, but to know that they are behind me and that they are there to help me and not hurt me, that helps me to get out and get housing and come through my community service, and I can move on and build and be better for it and have a better life.”

By Geoff Pursinger
Assistant Editor
The Times, serving Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood
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