Encampments program will either help or remove homeless camps

Homeless Encampment
This is just one example of a homeless encampment recently cleaned up in an unincorporated area of Washington County under a pilot program run by the county’s department of health and human services, housing services and the sheriff’s office. The program is aiming to partner with cities and special districts around the county to address encampments in each area using an array of resources funded by federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. Courtesy/Washington County

Washington County looking to work with cities to address widespread homelessness

Washington County is ramping up its efforts to address the homelessness crisis affecting Tigard and other local cities through a new pilot program aimed at campsites that are the focus of citizen complaints and concern. 

The Short-Term Homeless Encampment Program is a 12-month pilot that is intended to improve coordination between the county and cities like Tigard, Beaverton, Hillsboro, and others that are experiencing a sharp rise in homelessness and the camps many chronically homeless individuals set up, often on public property. 

The program will use just under $2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to Intensive outreach and navigation to set up cross-jurisdictional coordination, a communication strategy, street outreach to the homeless, and a system of handling reported encampments and either removing them or helping them maintain safer and more sanitary conditions. 

“It’s to improve that coordination with jurisdictional partners, special districts, and really think about these issues in our communities around homelessness and encampments,” Josh Crites, Washington County Department of Housing Services Assistant Director, said at the Aug. 10 Tigard City Council meeting. 

A Sheriff’s Deputy will also be assigned specifically to homeless outreach. The “HOPE” (Homeless Outreach Program and Education) Deputy will contact homeless campers and provide information about available services, while also working with local law enforcement on encampments in Tigard and other cities. 

“Their main goal is to have an eye on safety to work with the community and the members living in some of these encampments and to work with local law enforcement and code enforcement members,” Washington County Undersheriff John Cook said. 

What this means in practice is that a combination of law enforcement and social workers will conduct outreach to known homeless encampments, while a new online system will allow the public to report new camps that can then be contacted. Meanwhile, a new scoring system will be used to decide which encampments can be served with services such as hand-washing stations and porta-potties and which camps should be swept and removed. All of this information will be tracked to provide the county and cities with an ongoing flow of data to measure the results.

“This isn’t a solution for all homelessness, this is really focused on encampments and I see it as part of a continuum of services that we’re building in Washington County tighter with our jurisdictional partners,” said Marni Kuyl, Director of Washington County’s Department of Health and Human Services. “We’re concerned that if we just go in and sweep camps and if you just move people from one place to another place to another place, sort of a whack a mole approach to it, that it really increases risk to the homeless population and also the surrounding community.” 

The initial $2 million is just a drop in the bucket of what county officials envision for the future efforts to address homelessness. Crites estimated that in the coming years that figure could be closer to $50 million annually when additional supportive housing and services policies are taken into account.

Tigard councilors, however, stressed that the issue needs to be dealt with immediately. Some areas of the city, particularly the downtown district, are already dealing with unprecedented numbers of homeless campers – and a level of petty crime and quality-of-life issues that have not been faced before. 

“I see we’re putting funds to help take care of the problem after the fact,” said Councilor John Goodhouse. “This is great for a temporary fix, but what are we going to do to really to get ahead of this curve and actually recognize mental health and put some resources there and help out these individuals who are stumbling around?”

Councilor Jeanette Shaw, meanwhile, called on the city to reconvene the city’s task force on homelessness, while Mayor Jason Snider cautioned that some issues related to homelessness, including mental health treatment, must be dealt with by state and federal authorities. 

Councilor Liz Newton, meanwhile, stressed that encampments are generating more citizen complaints and concerns than at any time since she started working for the City of Tigard in 1980. 

“I know that one of the biggest issues folks have is the behavior of individuals outside of the encampments, so that’s a big problem for our community,” Newton said. “I feel like what we want to do is get these people services and housing, that’s really important and really critical. And on the other hand, we’ve got this push-pull in terms of this community, who tell me ‘I’m not uncompassionate but this is hard. I’ve got small children and these people are supposedly on our property.’ So, they are not unsympathetic, they feel bad complaining because they want people to get help.”

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Josh Kulla is a writer and photographer with experience reporting on city, county and state government, as well as photographing news, sports and events, across the Portland metropolitan area. In his spare time, he can be found photographing Northwest landscapes. He can be reached at [email protected]