The Issues of Homelessness as they Relate to Law Enforcement

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By Fred Stewart

Law enforcement should play a more active role in addressing Portland’s homelessness crisis.

Over the last few months, I’ve talked to Portland voters and found that one issue on everyone’s mind, regardless of where they live, is the problem posed by the city’s homeless population. Portlanders are upset about the lack of a strategic plan on how to deal with the ever-growing homeless population and the societal effects of having people living on our streets and in our parks.

City Hall must do more to shelter the homeless and to address the factors that led to their homelessness. However, there is also a step to solving our homelessness crisis that City Council currently neglects: policing. To reduce crime, our police must be allowed to make further contact with our homeless.

After a shooting at a homeless camp last month, the Mayor issued a statement that, in my opinion, sums up his lack of vision and problem-solving skills on this issue. Mayor Hales said, “This particular incident highlights that our homeless population are among our most vulnerable to being victimized by criminals, regardless of whether the criminal lives indoors or out. It’s why the City has been aggressively working to find safe places for people to sleep in the short term and to get back to the safety of a permanent home as quickly as possible.”

The Mayor’s comments would suggest that he understands that homelessness is a challenge that the city must face from many angles. Unfortunately, his actions don’t match his words. Right now, City Hall is pretending that the growth in our homeless population has no effect on crime. As the recent shooting reveals, we cannot continue to act like more homelessness in Portland will not require more policing to mitigate its impact. So, let me help Mayor Hales understand how to help solve the problem, not surrender to it.

  1. Regardless of whether the police are told not to enforce the law against street camping, street camping is still against the law. City Hall should let the police start contacting and getting identification from people found camping on the street. They should do this to keep track of wanted people with outstanding warrants, sex offenders violating their probation and parole, runaways, and abuse victims.
  2. Expand the Police Behavioral Health Unit. Reach out to OHSU for medical and psychology students to pair with an officer as part of their education. PSU’s School of Social Work should be invited to get involved, too. This will grant our students valuable experience and will give our police the support and training they need to best address the sensitive issue of mental illness.
  3. Pair a Portland Fire Bureau SERT medic with an officer on each of these active-engagement police shifts, to help assess medical needs on people they contact. Many homeless people have untreated physical and mental health problems that must be addressed as root causes in order to reduce homelessness in our city.
  4. Expand the police’s current ability to place a civil hold on intoxicated people to include minors found in violation of curfew who cannot identify themselves or their guardians. Furthermore, the scope of civil hold should also be expanded to include people who are psychologically unable to care for themselves and are either gravely disabled by their condition or pose a danger to themselves or others.

Here is what I think will happen. As wanted people are arrested, criminals will hear that the cops are engaged and looking for people with warrants and will thus move out of Portland. As runaway minors are identified, some of that segment of the population will leave–hopefully to return home. With more information on these runaways, the City will be more able to help address their needs, both in terms of social services and the justice system.

The goal should be to actively engage, not to ignore. Homelessness is not a crime, but there are criminals among our current homeless population that must be stopped. We owe it to Portland to make sure we weed out the bad so they don’t prey on the good. The mayor’s current policy is like a three-legged table. Without active law enforcement as a fourth leg, it is unusable.

Recently I was walking in the Pearl District with my friend and advisor, retired PPB Captain CW Jensen, when we were solicited for money by a homeless man. I said that I would not give him money, but I would pay him to answer a few questions. He quickly agreed. I found out he was from San Diego. When I asked him why he would leave such a great climate for rainy Portland, he said that they arrest people down there, and everyone knows that Portland has better benefits for the homeless than San Diego and that our cops don’t hassle them as much. That was worth every cent of the three bucks I handed him.

It is well and good that the City of Portland provides compassion and care for its homeless population. At the same time, we must not neglect the law enforcement needs of our city when dealing with them. Citizens, churches, and business owners should not be forced to have their homes, facilities, and storefronts used as beds, toilets, or trash cans by the homeless. In particular, we should work to weed out criminals from within their ranks, which will certainly happen if we investigate street campers for outstanding warrants.

By refusing to allow law enforcement to even engage street campers, the City is making it easier for criminals to prey upon its citizens, both within and outside the homeless community, and this makes Portland a worse place to live, visit, and do business. That is not compassion, it is complicity. As a Portlander of 39 years who loves our city and its values of generosity and respect, that saddens me.

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