Just Compassion plans for day center to help homeless population of East Washington county

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tigard Police Officer Jason Tillotson walks toward a homeless camp on Southwest Dartmouth Street, Tuesday morning. The city has a large homeless population, but a group of local churches is hoping to open a day center in the near future. By 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, the piles of garbage near Southwest Dartmouth Street stood chest high in places.

Men in orange vests shoveled refuse onto carts for removal.

The trash — damp clothes, furniture, pieces of plastic and some drug paraphernalia, were the remains of the one of the largest homeless camps in Tigard.

Police told residents in the camp that they had until Tuesday, June 16, to move along or face charges after officers say it became disruptive and a problem for nearby businesses.

The camp was set up in a heavily wooded area owned by Costco Wholesale, 7850 S.W. Dartmouth St.

It’s the second large homeless camp removed from the area in as many years. In 2014, police tore down a large homeless camp in the woods near Tigard Cinema.

The Dartmouth camp had seen a number of police calls in recent months, said Officer Jason Tillitson, related to thefts from nearby businesses and at least one assault.

But as crews finished up their work on Dartmouth Street on Tuesday, officials at City Hall were starting a very different kind of conversation about the homeless.

The Tigard City Council took up the issue at its workshop meeting, sitting down with representatives from Just Compassion, a Tigard-based coalition of churches and local groups working to help the homeless in Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood.

The coalition has met for six years, doing what they can, they said.

The group — which recently filed for non-profit status — provides warming shelters at churches during the winter, holds once-a-month laundry days, and helps feed people once a week.

But there’s more that they can do, said Darla Samuelson, a member of the coalition.

“If you collaborate with us, the city would be known as providing a compassionate and practical response to homeless adults in Tigard,” Samuelson told the city council.

A complicated problem

Rob Watson, a TVF&R paramedic and coordinator of the warming shelter at St. Francis Catholic Church in Sherwood, said that he sees both sides of the homelessness dilemma.

“As the shelter coordinator ... I see them as kind, caring people who are very appreciative and are a lot of fun to hang out with. I see them as my friends,” he said. “But when I’m on duty (as a paramedic), I see homeless people who are belligerent, drunk, violent, passed out. I see them when they are at their most vulnerable and most unpredictable.”

Coalition members said that what the city really needs is a day center that can help people get back on their feet.

The nearest day centers to Tigard are located in Oregon City and Hillsboro, said Susan Heron, a coalition member — too far away for people to get to when they need assistance.

“We’re just too far away from Hillsboro,” she said. “We’re out here on the fringes.”

A day center would provide the area’s homeless population a space for refuge, rest and recovery, Watson said.

“Whether that’s to sober up, sleep, shower or find needed mental health resources, they would know that they have a place to go,” he said. “It would give them a place to feel welcome and wanted and would reduce calls to 911.”

Tigard Police responded to 443 calls involving homeless persons between April 2014 and April 2015, according to the county’s 911 agency, the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency.

Those numbers would be reduced if people had someplace to go, Watson said.

“In my professional opinion, a day center would provide them with resources to prevent these types of situations from happening,” Watson said.

Compassionate reputation

Despite the high number of police calls, Lt. Jamie McDonald said that officers often form lasting relationships with homeless people, including transients they meet during their duties.

Those relationships have helped Tigard Police earn a reputation for working with the homeless whenever they can.

“In the entire county, Tigard is definitely one of the more understanding cities that I encounter,” said Valerie Burton, a coalition member and Homeless Outreach Worker with Luke Dorf Inc. “Versus places like Tualatin and Beaverton, it’s safer to be here.”

Burton said that reputation extends beyond the police department, too.

“This area of the county is more cohesive across city lines and church lines when it comes to working with the homeless,” she said. “The county’s housing network is hugely cooperative, but at the boots-on-the-ground level, this area is just much more collaborative.”

Samuelson said that the coalition is hoping to get the support of the city councils in Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood to help make real change in the lives of homeless people.

“Having a shelter would give them a consistent basis to get meals, have social interaction, grab a shower, get their mail, store their backpack or use a telephone. They could get ready to get employment,” she said.

By Geoff Pursinger
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