Washington County is exploding in population. We have all seen whole new neighborhoods popping up around us in recent years. The 2015 census data on population growth rated our county as the 3rd fastest growing county in the state. With our estimated population over 600,000, it is critical that our government address the growing social problems that come with this population growth. Homelessness is a problem that has been growing in step with our population growth.
Homelessness is a complex problem with many underlying causes like poverty, lack of affordable housing, uncertain physical and mental health, addictions, and community and family breakdown. There is not a single solution, and therefore, no one organization can solve our growing homelessness problems. Your sheriff’s office can and should be taking an active role in combatting homelessness at the root of the problems. Too often law enforcement tactics include only citing and arresting the homeless repeatedly, which has no impact on reducing homelessness. This only adds to the barriers preventing housing.
“I’m…baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter…and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter.”
–Nigel Rodley, United Nations Human Rights Committee chairperson
For our communities, homelessness poses a variety of livability concerns. Homeless encampments often foster pockets of low-level crime. Health concerns and damage to greenspaces in our communities often accompany areas with increased homelessness. It is clear our police response to these issues must address community livability issues and social problems with actual impact. Arresting the same people over and over again, adding barriers for housing and costing the county significantly will not work.
Across the country sheriff’s offices and police departments in large cities have changed how they police homelessness issues. These include programs like Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT) and Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH). The common strategies in these approaches include training of police officers, collaboration between social programs and law enforcement, and options other than arrest when homeless persons are the subject of a call for police action.
In Washington County, the Community Action organization has recently published its 2019 Issues on Poverty report. I will be attending their community conversation on issues of poverty in our county in early August where they will be sharing the latest results on what poverty looks like in Washington County specifically. As your next sheriff, I intend to implement new strategies for low-level crime calls involving our homeless residents. These strategies will include coordination with our existing service providers and add options for our deputies that include rides to shelters, connection with social workers, and incentives for engaging in services.
A police research team in June of 2018, identified 30 jurisdictions where homeless courts operate. Washington County has several specialty courts to include drug court, mental health court, and veteran’s court. I would like to see our sheriff’s office work with the judicial branch in Washington County to explore development of a homelessness court. This type of court could incentivize participation in services and allow participants the opportunity to avoid or expunge low level criminal convictions which only further prevent permanent housing opportunities.
When your government coordinates with service providers, your tax dollars are more efficiently spent in ways that can have actual impact on the problems in our communities. It will cost less to implement these programs than the current costs to the public safety system from arrest, incarceration, court, and probation. More importantly, stopping the criminalization of homelessness in our county will allow opportunities for all of our residents to thrive.
|Thank you for reading,|
Red Wortham for Sheriff|
PO Box 1623
Hillsboro, Oregon 97123
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