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Homeless in Tigard, Tualatin: Cities struggle with issue

Officials are torn between helping those truly in need and harboring those who cause trouble
by: Jaime Valdez, ON THE STREET — Business owners in Tualatin cite the nuisance caused by some homeless.

The homeless are among us, and city officials from both Tigard and Tualatin are looking for ways to deal with the problems posed by this growing population.

Tigard looks for solutions

The Tigard City Council on Sept. 19 got an earful about the homeless situation in the city from Howard Spanbock, executive director of Luke Dorf, a local community mental-health provider.

'We've learned some sad facts and figures,' he said.

Luke Dorf recently sent a federally funded social worker to downtown Tigard for a week to talk to homeless people about their situation, according to Spanbock.

'It's a snapshot of a week,' he said. 'Forty-seven homeless people were counted, with five women among them. The average was five years of homelessness. All their campsites lack basic facilities.

'The social worker engaged 17 of the homeless people, and four were placed into housing. It really is incumbent on us to work on this problem. It will not disappear on its own, and it can turn into a criminal justice problem, which is a very expensive solution. This is a social issue.'

Creating a solution will not happen without effort, according to Spanbock, who estimates that there are probably 100 homeless people in Tigard.

'They do prey on each other,' said Mayor Craig Dirksen. 'They also prey on other people and engage in fights. Women especially get preyed upon. Sometimes the homeless are victims of diseases. About once a year, one gets hit by a train - almost always, they're intoxicated.'

Councilor Sydney Sherwood, who is executive director of the Good Neighbor Center and arranged for Spanbock's presentation to get the council up to speed on the issue of homelessness, said that there are probably about 200 homeless people in Tigard and the surrounding area.

According to Sherwood, homeless people often show up at the Good Neighbor Center asking if there is room for them.

'The way to engage them is to have a facility where they can take a shower, get a cup of coffee and get out of the rain,' Spanbock said. 'When they come in and you have a trained person there (to process them), you can get them into a program. As your city grows, unless you do something about it, it will become a burden on the criminal justice system.'

According to Spanbock, Washington County has funds to spend on mental-health issues.

'There are agencies that will take these folks,' he said. 'It's about quality of life for both the local citizens and the homeless.'

He added, 'We need to create a place where something is offered to them - a meal, a cup of coffee, a professional person to get them off the streets. No one wants to be homeless except for a very few with mental illness.'

Sherwood noted that if voters approve a Washington County safety levy on the November ballot, 'maybe we can find a house and start a program' such as the one suggested by Spanbock.

Tualatin forms committee

City officials agree that Tualatin is not just dealing with one homeless issue.

The city and community leaders are torn between helping those who need and want help and harboring those who simply want to make trouble.

Tualatin police have the names of 12 people who in the last nine months have been arrested a total of 84 times. In 2005, those same people were arrested 85 times, and in 2004, they were arrested only 26 times.

'Since 2005, (the police) have doubled the amount of time dealing with them,' Police Chief Kent Barker told the City Council Sept. 25.

What Tualatin police don't have are addresses or places of residence for the 12 adults. Those 12 people are identified as transients or homeless. And while the city's homeless population has been estimated to be between 40 and 50, those 12 individuals are said to be giving the rest of Tualatin's homeless population a bad reputation.

'Again, it's just a handful of people,' Barker said.

This summer the Tualatin police fielded a wave of calls from area business owners who were fed up with harassing behavior dealt out by individuals described as being 'homeless.'

A new committee in Tualatin, made up of city officials, a local property owner and local volunteers, is looking at long-term and short-term solutions for how to handle the homeless population in the city.

But as Barker pointed out at the Sept. 25 council meeting, the city is facing two issues - first a homeless population that wants help in the way of social services and second a small group of transients whose behavior has resulted in numerous arrests.

'I don't know if it changed my mind, but it changed my perspective,' said Councilor Ed Truax referring to a Sept. 7 meeting where committee members were actually approached by eight homeless people with a list of needs.

The small group of homeless individuals asked for some help from the community in providing such things as a place to shower and use the restroom, a place for mail to be delivered and a place to discard garbage.

'I'm really torn,' Truax said adding that he did not want to create a Mecca for homeless people in the city, but he was open to the idea of seeing social services provided to the homeless population to help them 'climb out of this.'

The council and Barker had a harder time coming up with solutions for the dozen homeless/transient individuals who have been the reason for 84 police calls so far this year.

'We're spinning our wheels, wasting (the police's) time and spending tax payers' dollars,' said Mayor Lou Ogden during the Sept. 25 council work session.

The community homeless committee will meet in the second week of October to continue discussion on the issue.

Business owners are not the only group targeted by the 12 people listed by police. According to Truax, the small homeless group that attended the Sept. 7 meeting had intended to present the committee with a petition of signatures from the city's homeless population, asking for help and pledging to work with the group.

'But they were afraid of retribution,' Truax said - retribution from both the small group of homeless responsible for so many police calls and from the city.