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Houseless in East County

In the last year, I’ve seen a big increase in the number of visibly houseless people here in East County: the tents along Marine Drive, men and women pushing shopping carts along Halsey and Glisan, the white-haired man who begs near the Starbucks in Wood Village. Just last week, someone pitched a tent across the pond here at Salish.


I’m sure COVID is a big driver. People lose jobs because businesses close or cut staff. People lose a place to stay because of quarantine. Rents rise, shelter options drop. The Fairview city council last week changed two ordinances meant to better manage the houseless. I’ll explain those in a bit here – and why I voted “no.”


But let’s first address the issue we’re facing.


Houselessness is one of the toughest problems we’ve got. The forces that drive it are many and complicated: jobs and the economy, housing costs and availability, health care access and costs, domestic violence and child abuse, mental health and addiction. At the same time, helping the houseless effects government at every level. But we’re not all similarly equipped to get people off the street. Unlike Portland and Gresham, small cities like Fairview, Wood Village, and Gresham have no dedicated staff to help the houseless.


To help people who are unsheltered, and manage the problems they may create, the cities of Fairview, Wood Village, and Troutdale rely on the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). In 2016, the MSCO created the Homeless Outreach Programs Engagement (HOPE) Team. It’s led by Sgt. Doug Asboe, who oversees two HOPE deputies, Dep. Billy Epperson and Dep. Juan Hidalgo. HOPE members must volunteer to be considered for the team, are interviewed by both law enforcement officers and social service providers, and get special training in issues such as responding to people with trauma.

The HOPE Team takes an “outreach first” approach. They create relationships with the houseless, find out what they need, and connect them with services. The team also cleans up litter, bio-waste, and other public health hazards. According to MSCO: “HOPE’s goal is to provide a peacekeeping response to neighborhood and business livability complaints through a process which treats everyone involved with dignity and respect.”


How big the houseless crisis is in East County is anyone’s guess.


Gresham officials estimate there are about 40 chronically unsheltered people in that city. Sgt. Asboe estimated that they routinely serve about 150 unsheltered people in Fairview, Wood Village, and Troutdale. But officials say these numbers don’t tell the whole story. There may be dozens, even hundreds, more of our neighbors living in cars, in the woods, in motels, or doubled up with friends or family – people who don’t seek services or cause trouble or otherwise attract attention. They’re invisible.


Across all of Multnomah County, a 2019 homeless county count – the last one conducted due to COVID – found 4,015 people living on the street, in shelters, or in transitional housing. At least that many, or more, are doubled up with family and friends. The number of homeless children was stunning. The 2019 report, using data from Gresham, Corbett, and Portland schools, showed about 1,300 county K-12 students are on the street, in shelters or hotels, or doubled up.


Misfortune often puts people on the street – a lost job, an injury, a divorce. Sgt. Asboe says one Troutdale man lost his job last year after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. His wife also has serious health issues, and most of their money goes to medications. Their money ran out and they lost their house. They started living in their Ford pickup in a Troutdale truck stop. The HOPE Team helped. One deputy replaced a fuse and battery in the truck, and another got $500 in gas money from a social service agency so the couple could drive to family in Texas. They sent the team cell phone pictures from the road. You can read the story on the MSCO site here. And see the couple's photo above.


“It’s a common myth that these people are coming into East County from Portland or other places,” Sgt. Asboe says. “These people aren’t strangers. Most of them live out here – which is why they’re here. Some of my deputies went to high school with some of these folks. They are our neighbors and should be treated as such.”


But how do you balance compassion and concern as a city response? Complaints and questions about littering and camps are on the rise, and a houseless man living under the Union Pacific railroad bridge on 223rd near Sandy has sparked a sea of posts on Next Door and Facebook that register from worry over his safety to outrage about his litter.


The Fairview city council last month was presented two ordinance changes aimed at addressing the houseless issue. At the February 17 council meeting, both were approved by a 6-1 vote. (I was the lone “no” vote).


One suggested change expands an old no-camping ordinance in Fairview parks and now bans houseless camping not only in parks but on city trails, in riparian areas (which means along our creeks, streams, and the Columbia River), and on city property. Our city manager, Nolan Young, suggested this change based on citizen complaints. The broader ban would give the HOPE Team “another tool” it could use to relocate houseless people inside the city limits.


The other change is to the city’s trespassing ordinance. This revision was suggested by the city’s attorneys as a response to Martin vs. City of Boise, a September 2018 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The ruling stated that if the City of Boise doesn’t have enough shelter beds available, enforcing its total ban on camping and sleeping in public places amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment,” violating the U.S. Constitution. (The Boise suit was settled this month and resulted in a $1.3 million city-financed houseless prevention effort. Read the details here). Cities across the West are considering how to respond to the ruling, and there’s a current Oregon bill, HB 3115, aimed at providing guidance.


To respond to Martin vs. Boise, the Fairview trespass ordinance now includes additional language about an appeals process. Houseless people can use this appeal if they want to fight a citation for sleeping or camping in banned areas. Under the new ordinance, houseless people can remain in their Fairview camp until the city council rules on their appeal, a decision to be made within 20 days of the appeal filing. The new process is aimed at giving houseless people more due process protection, as outlined in Martin vs. Boise, which requires local laws limiting houseless sleeping and camping to be “objectively reasonable.”


Here’s what I think.


We need to make changes to our local ordinances to better comply with the court ruling. And we need to do more to get houseless people off the street. So the city council must act. But I don’t believe the time is right now, and that these actions are the best way forward. Here’s why:


- I don’t believe the new rules will be enforced – and won’t result in real changes in what’s happening on our streets. Our MSCO police chief for Fairview, Cpt. James Eriksen, at our Feb. 17 meeting declined to endorse the suggested Fairview ordinance changes and noted that the HOPE Team is an “outreach first” organization. While the city can require the sheriff to uphold our local law, citations for the houseless in Fairview, Wood Village, and Troutdale are rare. Sgt. Asboe said the HOPE Team had over 1,400 contacts with the houseless in 2020 and only 10 resulted in formal citations.

- I believe that we should wait to amend our rules until the legislature votes on HB 3115. Most cities want to see the final wording of the bill, should it become law, before changing their rules since the bill is aimed at providing better direction on compliance with Martin vs. Boise. Capt. Eriksen told the council that the MSCO is waiting to see whether a law passes, and what it says, before weighing in on local ordinances.

- I believe that broadening our camping and sleeping ban to areas beyond parks could create new problems for Fairview or for our neighbors. If we increase the number of places we’re banning the houseless from – not only parks but trails, city property, and riparian areas – and we demand enforcement, we could inadvertently push people closer to our own neighborhoods or push the houseless into Wood Village, Troutdale, Gresham, or Portland. We might just be moving the problem around – and creating an even bigger one for our residents and our neighbors.

- I believe we should address enforcement and housing at the same time. I don’t believe it’s right to focus on limiting where the houseless can sleep or sit without also working to actually get them off the street. We can, and should, pursue a parallel strategy that addresses concerns about public health and safety and also addresses ways to increase shelter and housing options.


I’m advocating for a regional approach to houselessness. Fairview, Wood Village, and Troutdale can work together to ensure our local laws work together, and that we’re taking a coordinated approach to providing housing assistance, as well as things like public restrooms or showers.


This regional approach is one reason that Sgt. Asboe recently formed the East County Homelessness Committee, which includes city council representatives from Fairview, Troutdale, and Wood Village. Our formal representatives, named by Mayor Brian Cooper, are Balwant Bhullar and Steve Marker. These two councilors have big hearts and lots of ideas for better serving people on the streets. Councilor Steve Owen has also recently attended the committee meetings as a Fairview representative.


I pledge to work with all my fellow city councilors, with Sgt. Asboe and the HOPE Team, and with Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann, a long-time supporter of the HOPE Team, on a regional approach to the issue. (The county also oversees social services for the houseless through the Joint Office of Homeless Services). I also plan to work with Wood Village Mayor Scott Harden and other local councilors in Troutdale and Gresham who care deeply about this crisis.


Finally, it makes so much sense to work with our Metro representative, Councilor Shirley Craddick, who could be key to a housing solution. Metro area voters in May 2020 approved a measure to raise taxes to pay for services to help the houseless, an effort called Supportive Housing Services. We could use our East County share to provide transitional or permanent housing. That would accomplish what we all want: To get people off the street and into a home.


To reach the HOPE Team, email HOPE@MSCO.org. To reach me, write me at lawtonw@ci.fairview.or.us or call me at 401-837-6055.


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