In recent years, Oregon’s largest city has struggled to address a growing homelessness crisis. As a result, those struggling to survive on the streets aren’t getting the help they need and the once pristine and thriving city has become a “cesspool.”
The issues plaguing the city couldn’t be more apparent to Portland’s police, as they spend their days patrolling the streets. While they can’t solve the crisis on their own, a few dedicated officers are going above and beyond to help the homeless overcome a challenging obstacle that’s making it harder for them to get help.
The City’s Reputation
Portland, Oregon has become famous for being an eco-friendly city with countless microbreweries and coffeehouses. The city, which is full of beautiful parks, bridges, and bike paths, is also home to thriving art, theater, and music scenes. In recent years, however, the city has become known for something else.
A Major Problem
Over the past few years, Portland has become the home of a homelessness crisis. Unfortunately, the problems have only gotten worse as time has passed. As a result, both the city and the people struggling to survive on its streets have been left to suffer.
A Once Vibrant City
“Our City has become a cesspool,” Daryl Turner, President of the Portland Police Association, said in a public letter to Mayor Ted Wheeler. “Livability that once made Portland a unique and vibrant city is now replaced with human feces in businesses doorways, in our parks, and on our streets. Aggressive panhandlers block the sidewalks, storefronts, and landmarks like Pioneer Square, discouraging people from enjoying our City.”
Everyone Deserves Better
“Garbage-filled RVs and vehicles are strewn throughout our neighborhoods,” Turner said in his letter, which criticized Mayor Wheeler’s ineffective policies. “Used needles, drug paraphernalia, and trash are common sights lining the streets and sidewalks of the downtown core area, under our bridges, and freeway overpasses. That’s not what our families, business owners, and tourists deserve.”
Out of Control
Each night in Portland, there are about 4,000 people who are homeless and have no choice but to sleep on the streets or in tent cities where other homeless congregate. According to those who call Portland home, the problem has continued to grow out of control in the absence of effective policies. Unsurprisingly, drug and crime problems around the city have also skyrocketed.
Recently, a petition created by Portland residents demands that the mayor and other city officials combat the crisis. According to the residents, there have been more violent crimes, drug use, home burglaries, fires, and pollution as homeless campsites have grown.
Desperate For Action
The city’s residents aren’t the only ones getting desperate for the homelessness crisis to be properly addressed. “What we need is for our city and county leaders to take responsibility for this crisis getting out of hand,” Turner said. “They need to put forth actual solutions with actual results and stop throwing hard-earned taxpayer dollars down a black hole.”
Resources Stretched Thin
And as the problems continue to grow, resources aimed at helping the homeless population is being stretched too thin. One of those resources is the police force, who is understaffed and inundated with calls regarding crime and drug problems occurring with the homeless. In fact, last year, half of the people arrested in Portland were homeless.
The Real Issues
Police officers in Portland know arresting the homeless isn’t actually what they need. In reality, the homeless need to be rehabilitated and treated for issues that have led to their current situation. Those issues include substance abuse, disabilities, and mental illness.
“The Portland Police Bureau have not been given nearly enough resources to fulfill its small piece in addressing the homelessness crisis,” Turner said. “We are understaffed. Officers are unable to spend the time needed to connect our homeless to necessary services, whether it be housing, mental health services, drug rehabilitation, or other resources.”
A Recipe For Failure
“It’s a recipe for failure to put the burden of the homelessness solution on the Police Bureau’s shoulders and then give us insufficient resources to do the work,” Turner added. “The rank and file of the Portland Police Bureau are working tirelessly to improve livability in our City, preserve public safety, and connect our vulnerable communities to social services. We are the first line resource on the streets serving the public—including the homeless—every day with care and professionalism.”
Noticing A Pattern
While the police can’t fix the homeless crisis on their own, they’re doing everything in their power to help. So far, the police have been working hard to hire and train more officers so that they can better help the homeless and get them the help they really need. However, while trying to help the city’s homeless get access to services and housing, they started noticing a common problem.
A Common Problem
According to Sergeant Shaun Sahli, he and other officers started noticing that many of the homeless people they came in contact with didn’t have any forms of identification. For many the officers have spoken to, their IDs are either lost, expired, or have been stolen.
Victims Of Theft
Like many others, Sonia Wesley had valid forms of ID that were stolen while living on the street. The 58-year-old who camps out downtown told KGW8 that she had everything in a purse, which disappeared one day. “I had my tribal ID, a state ID, my social security card, my bank card, everything,” said Sonia. “I had it all.”
A Major Obstacle
Without an ID, homeless individuals can’t get access to services aimed at helping them get off the streets. Getting a valid ID might not seem like a huge task, but for those who are homeless, they can struggle to fill out forms and even confirm their identity.
A Complex Process
“It’s a complex process because without ID, you can’t get ID,” Liora Berry, director of homeless services, told KGW8. “So, you have to prove like where you were born, and with changes that also came with concerns about terrorism, there’s even more barriers.”
The First Step To Rehabilitation
“It’s a big hurdle,” Sgt. Sahli, who leads the central precinct’s neighborhood response team, told Willamette Week. “They don’t have their IDs and they have to go through the process of getting an ID before they can do any HUD paperwork to get into services,” Sgt. Sahli added.
Above And Beyond
According to Sgt. Sahli, two of his offers have made it their personal mission to address this first obstacle. Recently, officer Ryan Engweiler and officer Tim Engstrom started ‘ID Project’ to help the homeless confirm their identity and get new IDs. In order to do that, the pair has gone so far as joining people at the DMV and have also become certified notaries.
In The System
According to the pair, it sometimes actually helps if an individual has had a previous run-in with the law. “What this program allows us to do is provide that proof of identity of who the person is,” Engstrom told KGW8. “If they’ve been in the system, if we’ve had previous contact with them, we can kind of use that to actually help them for a change and get their ID, so we can get over that barrier and get them into housing.”
Plans To Expand The Project
“We just know the individuals,” said officer Engweiler. “We know the issues they have and how difficult it is for them.” The pair has based their project off a program in Houston, Texas, that helped people get IDs and then connected them with mental health services, jobs, and housing programs. So far, the officers have helped 22 people living on Portland’s streets get valid IDs. They plan on expanding the program in the future to help even more people.