Dealing with homeless issue should be a regionwide effort

by: ,

Portland Mayor Tom Potter's plan to convene a panel to consider ways to better serve his city's mentally ill and address homelessness is leadership worth supporting - and an idea worth expanding.

Potter suggested the idea of commissioning the group as justice officials were trying to sort out why James Chasse Jr., a mentally ill man, died in a struggle with Portland police officers in Northwest Portland.

This death was extremely unfortunate. But it would be equally unfortunate if the Portland-area community failed to address growing problems related to mental illness and the homeless. Among these problems are a series of unfortunate confrontations between the police and those suffering from mental illness, alcohol and drug use or severe depression. In the last few months, at least three such encounters have ended in violent death - including a fatal shooting last week in Forest Grove.

Potter recognizes that these are problems without jurisdictional boundaries. 'We need to acknowledge that it is a much larger issue than just the police.'

Issue needs regional involvement

In fact, the impacts of mental illness and the homeless are spreading across the region. And as such, problems associated with both are felt not only in downtown Portland - where homeless people are highly visible - but also in that city's Lloyd and Hawthorne districts, in St. Johns, Gresham, Tigard, Tualatin, Beaverton and Hillsboro.

For Potter's commission on the mentally ill to be effective, it should include representatives from Washington County, as well as east Multnomah and Clackamas counties - not just from inner-city Portland or traditional Multnomah County agencies. The effort should also include business, hospital, civic, non-profit and religious community representatives.

Why should local residents care about the mentally ill? Health-care officials estimate that one out of every five families has a member dealing with some form of mental illness, including depression, addiction, anger management and schizophrenia. In Multnomah County alone, there are an estimated 4,000 homeless people living under bridges and on streets, sidewalks and alleys. Across the region, that number is spreading.

And homelessness and mental illness are often connected. Due to changing state laws that went into effect beginning a few decades ago, the mentally ill are no longer detained in huge, sterile state institutions, but allowed to live in their community - oftentimes without needed treatment services or support systems, including housing.

Involve private sector and sheriffs

Potter already has allies who are working on this matter.

Over the past year, Washington County Commissioner Andy Duyck has called for more attention to the problem. And the Vision Action Network, a public private partnership founded by Washington County, has made mental health a priority. County sheriffs should head the list of those willing to help. In Multnomah County, up to 30 percent of the jail population is made up of people who've been diagnosed with mental illness. Washington County's jail houses many others diagnosed with mental illness, as well.

The business community should also be a partner. Evidence of that comes from the Portland Business Alliance-led downtown Business Improvement District, which is finalizing the Dec. 1 opening of a day shelter that will operate as a six-month pilot project for seven days a week, from approximately 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The center is envisioned as a place where approximately 150 homeless and likely some mentally ill people can get meals, medical care and counseling. Presently, most downtown-area homeless shelters are closed during the day, forcing those in need out on the streets and sidewalks.

The first goal of Potter's commission should be to build an understanding of problems related to the mentally ill and homeless. And then it should consider and advise measurable actions that will achieve solutions. The commission's focus should be action - not talk.

We strongly urge Potter and other regional leaders to make this effort an immediate priority. No one wants another tragedy.