Because You Asked; Homelessness, Substance Abuse and Mental Health

 

“Because You Asked” blogs are in response to questions asked by you, the community I serve. Each volume addresses a question or group of questions. I’ve tried to keep the questions worded as asked, but occasionally have to reword them either to provide context or to combine similar questions. In any case, I’ve tried to retain the questioner(s)’ intent.

 

Questions – As a suburban area of Portland, how do you plan to address the growing problem we face in the county stemming from homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health crisis that the state and nation as a whole is facing? How will you keep areas under your protection from turning into Portland?

These questions involve complex and intersecting community challenges. I believe the Sheriff’s Office’s role in meeting these challenges is to be a dependable partner in developing and implementing solutions, and my voice and energies as an elected official can support solutions. The good news is we have been involved as partners and innovators to help address these challenges. I will highlight our role and where I intend to lead further in these areas.

Homelessness. According to the Point in Time (PIT) report, the number of homeless individuals in Washington County grew from 522 in 2018 to 530 in 2019, approximately a 1.5% increase. (The 2020 PIT numbers have not yet been posted on the county website.) Having served for several years on Washington County’s Homeless Planning Advisory Committee, I learned that among the multitude of factors involved in homelessness, the underlying problem in communities where people are increasingly without homes is a lack of affordable housing. In Washington County it’s clear market forces are not building affordable housing. Land and construction are too expensive. Affordable housing used to be treated in a manner similar to infrastructure by the federal government, but public housing funds were drastically cut in the early 1980’s. Across the country, states and counties do not have the resources to fill the gap, and Oregon is no exception. Current ways we are helping and where we can do more include:

Deputy Outreach to Homeless
  • While limited to a part-time basis due to other Patrol Division demands, several deputies conduct outreach with homeless individuals to connect them to housing and services in concert with the Washington County Housing Authority and Community Connect. Deputies invest time over multiple conversations to build trust with homeless individuals to take necessary steps to access housing and resources. With help, encouragement, and in some cases transportation by a deputy to the local Community Connect office, many individuals have been re-housed.
  • Through our partnership with the Washington County Housing Authority, we will support future residents in the approximate 1,300 affordable housing units funded by the voter-approved Metro Regional Housing Bond. Of those units, about 100 are planned to provide permanent supportive housing and services for individuals with needs to include mental health and substance use disorder. Additional supportive housing is planned through the Regional Supportive Housing Impact Fund (RSHIF) strategic framework supported by a collection of collaborative funders. Kaiser Permanente recently made an amazing $1.3 million investment to this effort in Washington County. In this way, we can better address chronic homelessness while also reducing the rate homeless individuals end up in Jail because their untreated mental illness and/or addiction led to criminal conduct.
    • I will explore ways to expand homeless outreach by patrol deputies to work with our partners to connect more homeless individuals with services and housing.
  • We will also support Washington County Housing Authority’s “Built for Zero” strategy by continuing our work to be part of the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) that connects the many involved agencies and non-profits to homeless individuals to increase service coordination and prioritize services by risk and need. Recently, one of our deputies became the first law enforcement officer in Washington County to become part of the HMIS.
  • Regarding offenders who do not have a residence upon release following a Jail sentence, our support to federal HUD reentry grants and housing navigators helps transition those in custody to housing upon release to support healthy outcomes and a crime free future.

Substance Use Disorder. Based on my experience serving on the Governor’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission (ADCP) and over 30 years in law enforcement, it’s crystal clear that the lack of prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery services does not support healthy outcomes for those with addiction, and in fact places a huge burden on families, communities, and our public safety and health agencies. To reduce the rate of addiction in Washington County, I will:

  • Fully support the implementation of the state-wide strategic plan the Oregon legislature has tasked the Drug Policy Commission to produce. After much hard work, our Commission approved the plan on February 13, 2020, and it will soon be presented to the Governor and legislative leadership. The plan provides intermediate and long-term goals for state and local agencies in order to lower the rate of Oregonians with addiction from 9.4% in 2017 to 6.5% by 2024, and decrease overall morbidity and related health disparities. As Sheriff, I will encourage passage of enabling legislation that the plan will require for improved outcomes locally and across Oregon.
  • Continue our support to Washington County’s Hawthorne Walk-In Center for Mental Health and Addiction because of the life-changing treatment and pro-health services available to everyone who walks in, regardless of socio-economic status or means. Many who receive services there are referrals from deputies and police officers across Washington County.
  • Support new and innovative local programs like the 4D Recovery Center in Hillsboro.
  • In concert with the county’s Health Department and non-profit service providers, explore a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Program. LEAD will identify partners and build momentum, identify a specific substance misuse population, study similar communities where LEAD works, secure funding, develop intentional goals and policy, and start small and scale-up what works.

Mental Health. As the Sheriff, being a reliable partner and leading our agency in support of improved mental health services is part of a larger community effort. In my role as Sheriff I have:

  • Served on the policy development committee to establish the above-mentioned Hawthorne Walk-In Center for mental health services. In 2019, over 1,000 individuals were served as a result of a law enforcement referral or transport to the Center; the Center’s healing services divert some from Jail custody, and I will partner with them to expand their hours of operation. Their important work is at the intersection of mental health and substance use disorder, and I look forward to continuing our work there.
  • Continued county-wide services of our Mental Health Response Teams who provide compassionate, effective care and service to those with mental illness or when in crisis.
  • Strongly supported Mental Health Court to help non-violent offenders diagnosed with a mental illness successfully complete probation. This program helps reduce the chance those with mental illness return to Jail.
  • Strongly supported Jail services in place to better treat someone with mental health factors who becomes incarcerated, including psychiatric nursing staff, and a mental health liaison who can connect the person to services upon release.
  • Continued to lobby the Oregon legislature for increased funding for mental health and addiction services.

In addition to continuing these efforts, in concert with Justice System partners I will explore a justice system triage center to increase diversion from Jail to mental health services in certain minor cases that involve a mentally ill person.

While the role of Sheriff is important in meeting these enormous challenges, our entire community must answer the call. We are fortunate in Washington County that local governments, agencies, community-based organizations, robust civic organizations, and volunteers are very collaborative. Previously, I wrote about the importance of fostering supportive relationships as part of being an effective leader to promote collaboration and partnerships that support problem solving, no matter the size or scope. These relationships are vital to keep Washington County the safest urban county in Oregon and the beautiful place we call home.

Pat