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Homelessness: A symptom of underlying problems

Tucked away behind a cluster of trees along Interstate 84 near Troutdale is another world the average local citizen or traveler likely never sees or thinks about.

Punctuated only by a faint rumble from the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, many folks with no address of their own make their home within the forest.THE OUTLOOK: JOSH KULLA - Members of a Multnomah County police homeless outreach team greet a camper who has set up an elaborate shelter at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge. Instead of clearing out such individuals, the outreach team instead offers help and access to social services.

The issue of homelessness is often discussed. But it’s only been the past year or so that the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office had funding to seriously address growing problem, forming a special outreach team dedicated to providing services and cleaning up garbage that transients leave behind.

“This topic has quite a history,” said MCSO Capt. Monte Riser. “It dates back several years, but sort of came to focus in 2013 when we just had so many camps out in the Sandy River Delta. The feedback we were getting from the community was that we needed to develop more of a comprehensive response and a collaborative response.”

Riser took the $38,000 allocated by the Board of Commissioners and created a six-person outreach team, headed by Sgt. Sean Mallory. The team goes out every couple of weeks to walk through the camps, post notices at campsites and offer services. So far, it’s been working.THE OUTLOOK: JOSH KULLA - Multnomah County Jail inmates clean up a tent and debris at a Columbia River Gorge homeless camp.

“What we found was there was kind of a mix of both homeless subjects and people that were just unlawfully camping or going to those camps and causing a lot of public safety concerns,” Riser said.

There were multiple reports of assault and sexual assaults, with as many as 25 camps at a time — each with as many as a dozen occupants.

“Many of the homeless have personal problems, and that’s why they have become homeless,” said sheriff’s office Deputy Joe Graziano, who serves as Corbett community resources officer. “During our contacts we tend to see addiction and mental health issues or just an inability to function in mainstream society. Their homelessness then becomes a secondary problem, while their personal issues remain their primary problem. Until those primary problems get fixed, they’ll likely remain homeless.”THE OUTLOOK: JOSH KULLA - Marco? Polo. A simple childrens game guards access to this Gorge homeless camp.

Reaching out

Despite successful contacts, the team finds many transients don’t want the services the county offers.

“If we make contact with them, we’ll ask how long they’ve been out there for,” Mallory said. “We have a Street Roots (homeless advocacy group) book we hand out, and then we get whatever name they’re going to give us. If they’ve tried to apply for services before, we see if they were successful or not successful, are they receiving any additional assistance from the state or any kind of income. There’s this litany of questions we ask them. Most are forthcoming at that point.”

After an exchange of information, photos to document the camp and camper, the outreach team moves on.

“At the end of the day we’ll put together a report and we’ll forward it to our partners in JOIN,” Mallory noted.

Their intent is never to harass, but to provide assistance and cleanup.

JOIN, a homeless-services organization in Portland, then goes out in the next few days to offer further services and try to connect people with homes.

“I think based on the success, we would want to continue making consistent patrols,” Riser said. THE OUTLOOK: JOSH KULLA - Multnomah County Sheriffs deputies confer with a resident at a gorge area homeless camp.

Allocating resources

With funding for the next year not allocated, it’s unknown how often the outreach team will be able to patrol.

“Being unfunded, that would ruin out ability to do anything close to our current capacity,” he said. “It would just mean doing what we can with available resources based upon the current budget. It’s not to say we would never go out here, but it would just be on a monthly or quarterly assessment, and that would be a much smaller scale as well.”

For Graziano, the outreach is important, but with so many refusing help, his focus is on the detritus left behind when campers move on.

“For me personally, the biggest issue is garbage,” he said. “There’s leadership in the camps. (We) try to have them watch out for themselves and clean up within their own camps.”

Local groups have joined in the effort as well to keep the recreational areas clean. The situation has vastly improved, but remains a concern.

“Campers are out there and should not be, but that’s kind of why we want to continue to have consistent outreach efforts,” Riser said. “We don’t want to be about enforcing the unlawful camping laws, we want to be about outreach and connecting people to services if that’s something we can do.”

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