In the Lents neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, residents gathered at a public forum last June to voice their concerns about the city’s growing population of homeless individuals.
Portland saw rent rise twice as fast than the rest of the nation over the last decade. Additionally, the number of homeless people increased by almost 30% in the last decade. The effects of those dynamics were on full display in Lents, one of the city’s most racially diverse areas and among the neighborhoods where home prices had been rising the fastest.
Encampments had formed in parks and along biking and walking paths, and tension between housed residents and those who were not was simmered. Residents desperately wanted someone to address the litter, drug use and mental health crises they’d seen.
Months before, residents had voiced their dissatisfaction to a police commander. This time, their guest was the commissioner of Portland’s Housing Bureau.
Martin Johnson, a Lents resident, complained about trash found in yards and on the streets. “We clean it up. We clean it up after they return. They come back,” he said. Johnson mentioned that both he and his wife carry concealed weapons.
“And if it happens in my yard, there’s going to be a problem,” he said. “So if we don’t come up with a solution, you’re gonna have some deaths around here if people are going in people’s yards.”
A few in the crowd cheered, or murmured, “Amen.”
“That’s the truth because we are frustrated, totally frustrated,” Johnson said.
This is a tension that’s playing out across West Coast cities, as the combination of a mental health crisis and a decadelong real estate boom have created a new, especially vulnerable, especially visible generation of the unhoused. They’re “unsheltered,” meaning they live in cars, tents and makeshift shelters on the streets, rather than in shelters. In the decade 2009-2019, unsheltered homelessness increased in California, Oregon, Washington, while it declined in major cities beyond the West Coast. The unsheltered are increasingly living on the streets in residential areas, and their new neighbors are turning to the police for assistance.
Most of the time, these emergency calls aren’t to report crimes. In Portland, for example, most police calls about homelessness from 2018 through 2020 were to report “suspicious” people or to ask an officer to check on someone’s welfare. Still, these interactions often end with an unhoused person’s arrest, and in Portland, half of arrests over a four-year period were of homeless people.
An analysis by RevealThe Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s a phenomenon that is generating unaffordable fines for unhoused individuals, sapping police resources and failing to address the core problems fueling homelessness.
The analysis showed:
• Unhoused persons are more frequently arrested. These arrests are less likely for serious crimes. Although the homeless population was less than 2 percent of the total population in all cities, they were responsible for anywhere from 7% to half of all Portland’s arrests. Unhoused people were more likely to be charged with violent crimes than housed residents in every city Reveal surveyed.
• The reality of living outside is reflected in the infractions they are accused. Unhoused people were often ticketed in cities for loitering or drinking alcohol in public. Police in San Diego used one municipal code offense more than any other between 2013 and 2020. This law was originally intended to require residents to empty their trash cans. However, it has been modified to cite or even arrest unhoused persons for taking up public space.
• The unhoused are often charged with old crimes. Some of the most common offenses reflect particular challenges for someone who lives outside: failing to appear in court and not following their probation or parole terms. More than 40% of Portland’s unhoused persons were arrested. Executing a warrant was the only purpose, most often to prevent a defendant from appearing at a court hearing. Unhoused people and their advocates say it’s harder for them to get to court dates, and unaffordable penalties just perpetuate the cycle.
Reveal found the driving force behind arrests often isn’t proactive police enforcement, but residents reporting that a person is making them feel unsafe, refusing to leave the area, or leaving trash and other items behind. Portland is home to the following: Reveal’s analysis shows at least 60% of calls that police dispatchers categorize as “homeless-related” aren’t explicitly about crimes.
Howard Belodoff, an advocate for unhoused individuals, says these clashes often highlight that a more sensitive response is needed.
“They need a place with somebody to guide them,” he said. “Social workers are much better than police officers at this.”
Some cities have programs in place to divert these calls to unarmed social worker. However, the programs are still limited in funding and scope. Police are still largely the first line of response, and even many police officials say it shouldn’t be their job.
“We realized long ago that we’re not enforcing our way or arresting our way out of this problem,” said Sgt. Matt Jacobsen, who leads Portland’s Central Precinct Neighborhood Response team.
Many of the offenses his team responds to amount to “acts of survival” and a lack of privacy, like cutting toenails or washing hair on the sidewalk.
“It’s not going to work, nor is it the right thing,” he said of police enforcement.
The United States has a long history with the criminalization and decriminalization of homelessness. It was embedded in the first British laws ported over here — one law regulated the existence of “vagabonds, idle and suspected persons” in public space. It was also a pivotal part of the broken windows theory. This theory states that disorderly behavior is more dangerous than serious crime. It has dominated American law enforcement for decades.
“The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window,” the theory’s authors wrote when introducing it in The AtlanticMagazine published 40 years ago.
It continues today.
According to researchAccording to the National Homelessness Law Center in the United States, Portland is one of 100 cities that have laws against sleeping or lying down in public places. Although ordinances regulating living and sleeping outside are challenged in city halls, state legislatures and courts across the country, it’s still rare for cities to lean away from policing as the primary response.
This is at least in part because, without alternative options, residents will call their police departments to complain about homeless people — and the police are obligated to come.
How we did this
RevealYou can obtain arrest data by submitting public records requests to the following cities: Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; Sacramento, San Diego, San Diego; and Seattle, Washington. Arrestees were categorized as unhoused only if their home address data contained a keyword like “transient,” “homeless” or “general delivery,” or if their address corresponded to an emergency shelter. Visit the complete list of unhoused addresses. Reveal’s GitHub. If the field was empty or said “unknown,” the arrestee housing status was categorized as “Address unknown or missing.” Otherwise, the arrestee housing status was categorized as “Housed.” Address information was absent from 37% of San Diego arrests, 11% of Seattle arrests and less than 4% of Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland and Sacramento arrests. Also, since Seattle could not provide data between May 2019 and 2020, it is not included in charts comparing arrests across cities.
How the Cycle Works
In December 2019, a business owner called Portland police to report people sleeping in the business’s parking lot, inside a truck filled with shopping carts and trash.
“I’m getting ready to open for business and it just looks super creepy,” the business owner said in the call.
That same month, another man said he wasn’t sure if calling police was appropriate, but there was a “tweaker dude” outside his apartment complex asking everyone who came by if he could use their phone.
“He’s at the front entrance aggressively asking, ‘Hey, I need to use your phone. Hey, I need you to call Bryce. Hey, you know Bryce?’ ” the caller said. “And he’s got this pretty aggressive dog with him, too.”
The Portland police likely aren’t the best equipped to address the fundamental issues at play. Advocates working with the homeless claim that police often respond to incidents triggered by a lack mental health care or basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.
But when police do arrive, they often choose to pursue charges for minor legal violations or run an unhoused person’s name through a database in search of outstanding warrants from previous arrests.
This is why people without housing are arrested at such an alarming rate. People living on the streets or in shelters are often subject to sweeps that result in their possessions being taken or trashed. They also have to pay fines and fees. A criminal record can also make it difficult for you to get a job, housing, and access to social services.
Reveal’s data analysis shows the most common offenses include bench warrants, possession of controlled substances, disorderly conduct and theft. Many other infractions are the result of laws and ordinances targeting people who live outside, such illegal lodging, camping, and trespassing.
In San Diego, arrests of unhoused people were more likely to entail only a charge of a municipal code violation — like violating posted park signs or drinking in prohibited areas — than arrests of housed people were.
In 2007, the city of San Diego settled a lawsuit brought by a group of unhoused people seeking to stop the city’s practice of citing them for illegal lodging. In the settlement, the city agreed to stop using the specific illegal lodging law, but that didn’t stop the targeting of the unhoused. Instead, the city found a new ordinance to use — this one, unauthorized encroachment, was created to make sure people put away their bins after trash pickup days.
The number of citations issued for this violation has increased by more 500% in the past two years.
Ashley Bailey, San Diego’s spokesperson for public safety and homelessness, said the city doesn’t enforce unauthorized encroachment, illegal lodging or overnight camping unless beds are available in shelters. She said officers proactively offer shelter to individuals — and check for warrants — during these interactions.
“San Diego strives to balance compassion for those living on our streets with the need to address public health and safety issues,” she said.
People who are not housed are often arrested for failing to appear in court for a previous offense.
Tristia Bauman is a senior attorney at the National Homelessness Law Center. She said that unhoused people may have difficulty getting to court hearings.
“They may not have bus fare,” Bauman said. “They may be standing in a line to obtain meal service or obtain some other survival service and, as a result, not be able to appear in court.
And then there are other practical concerns around being able to keep track of days and times when people don’t have access to the same technology.”
In the past five years, Chris VanHook has been detained in Portland 14 times. Some were for misdemeanor offences, but most of the arrests were for bench warrants. This was after he failed in court to appear or check in with his probation officers.
He said dealing with police is sometimes the most stressful part about living outside, because “they don’t know how to leave people alone.” He understands that police will respond if they see criminal activity, but it makes less sense to him when people are “just sitting here minding their own business.”
VanHook was visiting Lents Park in July 2021 to attend a weekly dinner that was being hosted by an advocacy group. Another person called 911 to report that VanHook had attacked him with bear mace. The attack was not witnessed by a reporter who was nearby the men. Responding officers didn’t charge VanHook. They still ran VanHook’s name through a warrant list and got a hit.
He was held for four nights in jail after he failed to check in with his probation officers. He was released from jail after the charge was dropped. However, he still had a warrant for a 2017 conviction for possessing methamphetamine. He missed another court date due to the case, which led to other bench warrants. He could be arrested whenever he interacts with a officer again, even though he has been cleared of his original drug offense.
How to Break the Cycle
Some cities are looking for alternatives. In 1989, Eugene, Oregon, launched what has become the model for alternatives to policing unhoused people — CAHOOTS, which stands for “Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets.” The program sends an EMT and a mental health counselor instead of police and began responding 24 hours a day in 2017. CAHOOTS saved the cities $15 million by responding to 20% of 911 calls in Eugene, Oregon and Springfield, Oregon in 2019.
In the Lents neighborhood, Portland launched a pilot called Portland Street Response based on CAHOOTS in early 2021. JoAnn Hardesty, the city commissioner who championed the program and oversees Portland Fire & Rescue, said Reveal’s data findings were “concerning” because they show so many resources are spent on nonviolent calls for unhoused people “when Portland is experiencing record levels of gun and traffic violence.”
“Part of what compelled me to create Portland Street Response was the data showing that clearly our response to those experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis, as well as those experiencing houselessness, was not effective,” she said in an emailed statement.
The pilot program had a budget of $1.08million and was limited in terms of personnel and hours. The program reduced police response to nonemergency welfare checks and dispatches coded as “unwanted” or “suspicious” persons — the types that represent the majority of homeless-related calls that police respond to — by 27% in its first year, according to new researchPortland State University.
Researchers also found that the program would have responded approximately half of the 30,000 homeless calls it receives each year if it was open 24 hours per day. The City Council unanimously approved this year a $11.5 million budget for two years and expanded the program citywide. The funding comes from a combination from existing general funds and recreational cannabis tax revenue as well as revenues from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act.
As of fall 2021, federal grants had been granted to 20 states to help them launch programs that divert calls regarding mental health and substance abuse crises to teams made up of behavioral health specialists.
Los Angeles will use $1.5 million to expand a pilot project that diverts 911 calls about homeless people to unarmed teams comprising outreach workers and mental health professionals.
Oakland recently launched a pilot program for 18 months that closely resembles CAHOOTS. The program dispatches teams of an EMT, a community member, and responds to 911 calls in specific neighborhoods. The program is specifically designed to address the needs residents who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. The Reveal of Police in Each City Reveal showed that Black people were more often arrested than other people.
Sacramento fully funded a Department of Community Response 2021 that dispatches outreach specialists and social workers to calls related homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse disorders. Seattle’s program responds citywide, but for limited hours, five days a week. Recently, San Diego has increased its county-wide crisis response team.
Tremaine Clayton, a firefighter and paramedic who served last year as a staff member for Portland Street Response, says he thinks the programs have the capacity to change the way residents view someone in crisis — typically coded as “unwanted person” calls.
“To say a person’s ‘unwanted’ is already pretty inhumane,” Clayton said. He said that 911 callers have started to ask for specific information from Portland Street Response. “They’re acknowledging the person as a person struggling and knowing there’s a resource that could be connected to them.”
But frustration has long been the dominant emotion in conversations about homelessness at Portland’s Lents neighborhood community meetings.
During the police precinct commander’s visit in January 2021, attendees described feeling like prisoners in their own home. They said they couldn’t let children outside without fear of stepping on drug needles discarded by unhoused people.
Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct Commander Erica Hurley told residents she understood, but there’s only so much the police department can do to stop minor offenses or the cycle of criminalization.
“So I write you a ticket for a hundred dollars, and you crumple it up and put it on my front lawn, because you live out in front of my house, and then you don’t show up and pay your fine,” Hurley said. “And I’m going to write you another one, and you’re going to drop that one, too.
“What am I going to do about that? There’s no teeth in that.”
Hurley said the police’s part won’t work until there’s more help on the social services side to help people with drug addiction and other issues.
“Those are resources that are incredibly needed in the city of Portland,” she said.
This story was contributed by Cecilia Brown, a freelance producer and former producer for Reveal, and Emily Harris, a senior reporter for the magazine. It was edited and fact-checked by Kim Freda.
Melissa Lewis can be reached by email at [email protected]. Follow her Twitter: @iff_or.
This story was created by RevealThe Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent news organization. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to their weekly newsletter at revealnews.org/newsletter.