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Clackamas Service Center pampers homeless women, helps victims of sexual assault

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Trena Sutton called her March 18 event at the Clackamas Service Center a day of pampering because she wanted the hundreds of women who camp outside on the Springwater Corridor to have a hot meal, a massage and other amenities.

PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Pictured left to right are: Kelley Rose and Lynette Ingalls, attendees at the women's event; Trena Sutton, organizer of the event; and volunteer cook, Sandi Cartwright.But the event had a much larger purpose, and Sutton wanted to keep that goal under wraps.

“The women had no idea that this was a forum for a serious discussion,” about sexual assault, she said, because if that had been generally known, she was afraid predators might show up or they might bully some women into not attending.

PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Mary Everitt, left, a massage therapist, and Patricia Barrera, a sexual assault advocate, chat with Everitt's friend Chelsea Furumasa, who attended the event to offer support to the homeless women.“I started this event to address the ever-growing incidents of not only rape on the Springwater and surrounding areas, but to expose the culture of silence that is the ‘code’ of the homeless,” said Sutton, a long-time volunteer at the CSC, and a vocal advocate for the vulnerable population in the metro area.

About 30 women signed up in advance, and Sutton booked a panel of experts who are sensitive to the issues that these women face every day.

She scheduled the event at the Clackamas Service Center, just off of Southeast 82nd Avenue, since the center is the hub for those who mostly live along the trail in Southeast Portland to obtain services. It also is a clearinghouse for the passing along of information, Sutton said.

“I realize that sexual assault and assault of any kind have existed long before I came on the scene. What has made it more urgent is the increase in assaults and women willing to come to me to tell me their stories. It took a long time to build up the trust for the women to feel comfortable to come to me,” Sutton said.

Women living along the trail have a survival of the fittest mentality, she thinks, because they have received very little help to cope with the trauma of being homeless.

“Much of the resources were focused on getting people into housing, and that is not a viable solution with most of the chronically homeless,” Sutton said.

Most people start out living in a traditional home for many years, but “at some point either something catastrophic occurs or something causes you to lose your home, so if a house were the solution then no one would have ever been homeless,” she said.

“This is an [abbreviated] explanation why homeless women continue to have to live in camps, only to be victimized over and over,” Sutton said.

She acknowledges that women are the most prevalent victims of assault, but it happens to men as well. She is working with a 67-year-old man who was victimized by a predator; his case was set to go to the grand jury on March 18.

Event needed

Sutton said the event at the Clackamas Service Center was needed “to advise the women that Portland Police and Clackamas County Sheriff’s officers do care about them and want these predators off the streets. In addition, we want to let the women know that if assaulted, they can report it and provide DNA evidence that can be kept in police evidence until such time as a woman can get into safety.”

Many of the victims of assault are afraid to report it to the authorities because they are afraid of retaliation from their attacker, Sutton said.

Women who attended the event heard a panel of speakers, including Molly Dahl, detective supervisor for the Sex Crimes Unit, Portland Police Bureau; Officer Devonna Dick, who is based in the East Precinct of the Portland Police Bureau; and Patricia Barrera, a sexual assault advocate, who works with detectives in the SCU in the Portland Police Bureau.

Lynne Deshler, the Clackamas County Homeless Count coordinator, attended the event, but was not on the panel.

“This is an important conversation; I’m here to observe and learn,” she said.

Panel of experts

Dahl is one of the detective supervisors in the Sex Crimes Unit, a unit that serves victims of sexual assault from age 14 to 64.

She wanted event attendees to know that “our patrol officers are compassionate. We want to get victims of sexual assault to a hospital. This is an important piece; we want victims to feel comfortable” with the officers.

As a sexual assault advocate, Barrera “works side by side with the detectives, from the initial interview with a sexual assault victim to provide advocacy on multiple levels,” Dahl said.

“We are a compassionate, advocacy-based unit that is victim centered. Sexual assault investigations are difficult; the victim is going to be the driving force in how to proceed,” Dahl said.

If victims don’t wish to participate in an investigation, then advocates can offer them other services, like food boxes, shelter and developing a safety plan, Barrera said.

“They can also be offered counseling, and that counseling can be paid for [by] crime victims’ compensation [funds],” she added.

There are many reasons why sexual assault victims choose not to participate in an investigation, Dahl said.

“If they don’t feel ready mentally or emotionally to proceed, we respect that, especially with victims who live outdoors,” she said.

Dahl said she wanted to include Dick in the presentation, as “it is important for women to see a uniformed police officer. We take reports from everyone; they are not alone. A uniformed police officer is the first gateway to reporting” a sexual assault crime.

Dick, who is based in east Multnomah County, said most of the cases of sexual assault she encounters are in Gresham, where the homeless population camps in vacant houses or in RVs.

When she arrives on the scene, she tries to find someplace comfortable for the victim, so she can hear their story.

“Vulnerable people [don’t always] feel comfortable talking about their experience. I want to get them to a hospital, collect any evidence that is there, and make a safety plan for them,” she said.

Building trust

Lt. Graham Phalen, with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office in the patrol division, told attendees that he was at the event to ask for their help.

These crimes are largely unreported, and they happen to the most vulnerable people on the trail, he noted.

Women don’t report the crimes because they may be afraid of the abuser, or they are afraid they will lost their belongings, he said, noting that there might also be mental health and addiction problems thrown into the mix.

Phalen said he asked the women for their input, as to “what we can do to make them come to us [to solve] this complex problem. We want to build trust and increase our presence along the corridor.”

The sheriff’s department “needs to partner with community programs and government agencies; law enforcement is ill equipped to solve this problem alone,” Phalen said.

He added, “The folks experiencing [abuse on the trail] don’t know where to [go for help]. We want to reach out to them, to tell them they can communicate with us through Trena. We want to address security issues and do what we can to impact the crime of people preying on others.”

Amenities, attendees

PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Trena Sutton, organizer of the women's event, talks with panel members, from left, Patricia Barrera, Molly Dahl and Portland Police officer Devonna Dick. Looking on are Lynne Deshler, left, and Debra Mason, executive director of the Clackamas Service Center.Before the serious talk began, attendees, most of them homeless women who live on or along the Springwater Corridor, were drawn to the kitchen area, where Sandi Cartwright was serving up waffles with strawberries and cream, bacon and hash browns.

Cartwright, of Carson’s Catering, has volunteered at the Clackamas Service Center for almost three years. She cooks for 100 people every Tuesday, she said.

After the panel spoke, Mary Everitt, a massage therapist, offered free massages to the attendees. She said she had been looking for an opportunity to work hands-on with vulnerable women.

“My focus is on trauma massage, and I wanted to find a safe way to work on women who were victims of sexual abuse. That is where my heart is,” she said.

Kelly Rose, one of the attendees at the event, said she has been living on the Springwater Corridor on and off for 15 years.

Although she said she has never feared for her life, living on the trail can be “scary sometimes. I need to stay out of trouble and mind my own business. It is no fun, living in a tent [on the trail].”

What worries Rose is seeing “youngsters who are underage [on the trail]. I say something to and offer advice.”

Report it

Women who have been victims of sex crimes, or who know someone who has been victimized, are encouraged to contact the Portland Police Bureau’s Sex Crimes Unit at 503-823-0400.

The Clackamas Service Center is located at 8800 S.E. 80th Ave., next door to the Johnson Creek Fred Meyer. To find out what services the center offers to the homeless population, call 503-771-7914.