Everyone has seen them. They are the men and women walking and talking to themselves, or yelling obscenities at no one in particular. Or sitting quietly in doorways, rocking back and forth, or sprawling on nests of dirty blankets on our sidewalks.
So intertwined are homelessness and mental health patients that it is impossible to focus on one without addressing the other. We are cycling the people in greatest need between the street, hospital emergency room, mental health out-patient programs, warming shelter, and jail at a great expense and often without real progress.
Many of our homeless population also have substance/alcohol issues that contribute or directly caused them to be homeless.
These problems are difficult enough to treat and manage when the sufferer has a stable home and financial situation, but when the person has no way of getting to treatment appointments, paying for or managing a regimen of medications, and is constantly in the company of people with similar issues, treatment can be all but impossible.
The trend in recent years has been to create homeless drop-in centers, frequently as adjuncts to shelters, where police can take homeless people and have workers try and find a resolution to their situation.
Sometimes, the solution is as simple as calling a relative who will take them in, then putting them on a bus. That solution is often cheaper than a single night in jail.
Our homeless problem is far beyond the reach of local law enforcement. Homelessness is a statewide, societal problem. Funding for the mentally ill, and for substance abuse programs have either been cut or eliminated at the state level in favor of other services that are perceived as more critical.
So as your law enforcement, we recognize that homelessness itself is not a crime, but we do have a fundamental responsibility to deal with any persons who violate our laws and ordinances.
There is a small percentage of our local homeless community that choose not to follow the laws and rules.
There are numerous examples of persons who have been arrested upwards of 20 plus times for theft, trespassing, indecent exposure, and assault.
Whether homeless or not, that is unacceptable and we have an obligation to protect the many victims from these persons’ bad behavior.
The majority of our homeless community are law abiding and rarely have negative interactions with law enforcement. In most cases, if a person is homeless, we try to determine what the person needs.
We work closely with Mid-Columbia Center for Living when dealing with someone who is mentally ill, even if they are committing a crime. We recognize that jail is not always the best solution. Our intentions are always try to find a solution to get the person the help they need.
Less than a month ago I observed one of our repeat offenders defecate on a very public sidewalk in the middle of the day. When I contacted him he said it was an emergency. I reminded him that he was only a minute walk from a public bathroom.
I am aware this same person had been arrested for urinating near the front doors of the Safeway in the middle of the day. I asked him what he needed to get off the street. He said nothing, that he wanted to be homeless. He told me he was not mentally ill, that he did have an alcohol problem. He said he has family in town, but chooses to be on the street.
I asked him what it would take to get him to quit going to the bathroom in public. He said there was nothing I could do to make him stop going to the bathroom in public. I asked him what his thoughts would be if the court requested he work off his charge by working with the county’s work crew.
He said there was no way he would do work crew. I am aware this person was just arrested again last week for urinating in public.
Although it makes me sad to see this person in such a bad way, it is inexcusable to allow a grown man to continue to expose himself in front of children and families in our community.
Unfortunately, we find homeless persons that don’t want help and refuse to be held accountable when they continuously break the laws.
The exclusion zones, or what I would rather refer to as “safety zones,“ would only be implemented after the court determines the person chooses not to accept help, refuses work crew, or fails to complete other forms of accountability.
Because these persons have not been held accountable for their continuous bad behavior we estimate approximately 10 percent of our calls for service are in response to these six to 10 persons that we deal with almost daily.
This is not good use of our resources and I would propose if the safety zones were implemented and a person who had been notified by the court that they were not allowed to be in the safety zone violated the ordinance, they could potentially be sentenced to 30 days in jail.
If we hold the few bad actors accountable for their bad behavior, they will realize there are consequences in this community and they will either stop violating the minor crimes and ordinances, or go somewhere else.
By the way, if you are not homeless, the safety zones would apply to you too if you chose to continuously violate the law inside the safety zones.
We are asking you, our citizens, to please get involved, help us with the many homeless that may be mentally ill, fallen on tough times, or chose to be homeless, but don’t break the laws.
That is where we should be focusing our attention and resources as a community.
We as your law enforcement simply want better tools to keep our downtown safe and more abilities to deal with the criminal element, whether homeless or not.