When the patrol car pulled up to the ragtag camp half-hidden in the bushes, none of the campers scrambled for cover. Instead, they turned to greet Officer Mike Day, a regular visitor who knew most of them by name -- and all of them by sight.
“Did you get more meds since your last prescription ran out?” Day asked one homeless camper. “Are you staying in touch with your case worker?”
Working methodically, Day checked on all campers, urging them to take advantage of help offered by local agencies while cautioning them to stay on the right side of the law.
Day, a 10-year Oregon City Police Department veteran, has long taken an interest in problems the homeless face, as well as the problems they cause for businesses and residents. He has been rewarded for his focus by being named OCPD’s new Homeless Liaison Officer, a go-to person in the city’s effort to tackle the growing homeless problem.
“I grew up in a Christian church and a single-parent family,” said Day, also a member of Clackamas County’s Hostage Negotiation Team. “I’ve seen what poverty looks like, and people really do matter to me. The homeless are people and should be treated as such. I want to help.”
But Day clearly swings a double-edged sword and makes it clear he will not tolerate behavior that is illegal, dangerous or harmful to others. That balanced approach has the support of the Oregon City Homeless Solutions Coalition, group of more than 90 people and agencies that has been looking for answers to the city’s homeless issues since October.
“I’m thrilled the Commission made the decision to budget for the new position,” said City Commissioner Nancy Ide, also a coalition member. “We have needed someone on the police force identified and trained in issues related to homelessness. This will be helpful to the whole community.”
Jonathan Stone, executive director of the Downtown Oregon City Association, also is pleased that the Police Department is launching this initiative. He said the efforts should improve the business climate and quality of life in the 35 city blocks that the association focuses on.
“The association is very supportive of more focused efforts to address transients and homelessness in Oregon City,” Stone said. “Having an officer that is a point person will help our efforts to concentrate on problems we see.”
Oregon City definitely sees is share of homelessness.
Lynne Deshler, who coordinates homeless counts for the Clackamas County Department of Health, Housing & Human Services, said a January survey identified 2,293 people in the county as homeless. A total of 322 people were in Oregon City, the most of any community in the county.
Among Oregon City’s homeless, 118 were “unsheltered” – that is, sleeping outside – while 19 had sought help in emergency shelters. Another 178 people were found in “unstable housing,” a catch-all term for couch-surfing and temporarily doubling up with friends.
The reasons for homelessness are varied and complex. Some of the homeless couldn’t fend off financial problems after a sudden work layoff or divorce. Some have jobs, Day said, but can’t get enough ahead to rent a place. Others struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol. Still others are trapped in the grip of mental illness.
“Sometimes, it’s a combination of those factors,” Day said. “That makes it harder to solve. A homeless person could have several problems, but might not even be aware of the programs and services that are available to them. I try to steer them toward help in hope that they will get on their feet”
In his new position, Day is working closely with Nancy Busch, the Police Department’s code enforcement manager. Her four-person team regularly responds to complaints from downtown businesses and residents who may find a homeless person sleeping in their doorways.
“We’ve watched the problem grow exponentially since about 2010,” Busch said. “And we see some of the same people over and over.”
Busch and her team are the ones who post “No Camping” signs at popular spots. They also do a lot of cleanup around the downtown Transit Center, under the Abernethy Bridge and in parks like Clackamette, Jon Storm, Sportcraft and Clackamas Cove.
She said the team routinely deals with vandalism while picking up garbage, feces, bottles and needles.
“If we run into the people, we say, ‘C’mon guys, you know this isn’t OK,’ ” Busch said. “And we’re definitely not the Neatness Nazis. But we don’t have the power to arrest anyone. That’s why we’re really excited about having a Homeless Liaison Officer position. We not only like working with Mike Day, but he has the contacts in the homeless community and knows their stories. He knows who sleeps in the parks.”
Oregon City’s parks, however, close from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and clearly aren’t for sleeping. Restrooms are locked.
Phil Lewis, the city’s community services director, said work crews regularly are diverted from scheduled maintenance duties to clean up messes and vandalism. The cost is passed along to taxpayers.
“The parks staff comes in to clean the parks first thing in the morning,” Lewis said. “Besides messes, they also find some of the homeless may have taken the plastic trash-can liners for their own uses.”
That’s where Day comes in. He said his blend of care and compassion while enforcing the law and maintaining public safety can make a real difference.
Day said he hopes to help end homelessness one person at a time by helping them find the resources and support they need. For example, he can direct them toward getting valid ID – necessary to hold a job or receive benefits to which they are entitled. He can connect them with the Social Security Administration, Medicare, food stamps, Veterans Affairs and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He can get them in touch with drug- and alcohol-treatment counselors.
“How can we start to break down the barriers and start getting these people the help they need?” Day asked. “Well, my approach is to understand individual circumstances and do what I can to help them overcome their problems. Of course, if someone is stealing or vandalizing someone’s property, we can arrest them. But we’re not going to arrest our way out of the homeless problem.
“I am by no means an expert on homelessness,” Day said. “But I am patient and listen to their stories -- and then try to get them the help they need. Obviously, that won’t fix everything, but it will be a great first step.”