‘Juggling elephants’

From the East Oregonian, November 14, 2010

Most of us get only quick glimpses of Pendleton’s hardcore homeless.

We see them walking around town, overloaded with backpacks and rumpled from sleeping in shrubbery or on flop house floors. We wince as they fish bottles out of trash cans or mumble to themselves.

Christopher Schiller looks back towards his friends Claudia Lavadour and Brian Bettencourt as a train rumbles down the tracks recenlty in Pendleton.

Christopher Schiller looks back towards his friends Claudia Lavadour and Brian Bettencourt as a train rumbles down the tracks recenlty in Pendleton.

The transient population has swelled since Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts was a boy. In those days, he remembers “Emma the bag lady” wandering city streets.

“She didn’t cause many problems,” Roberts said. “She’d shoplift every once in a while, but for the most part, she just wanted to be left alone. This community reached out numerous times to give her own apartment, but that’s the way she chose to live.”

Besides Emma, who died several years ago, only a few other street people called Pendleton home.

Things have changed.

These days, transients often travel in pods of several individuals who hang out in groups for both social and safety reasons. Many deal with addiction, he said, toting backpacks loaded down with everything from sleeping bags and toiletries to high-alcohol malt beverages — the drink of choice. Most, Roberts said, carry knives to protect themselves.

Roberts’ officers know most of these men and women and spend hours each week dealing with some of the most common flashpoints — trespassing, fighting, untreated mental illness and public fears expressed in phone calls to the police. The drain on Pendleton’s police force frustrates Roberts mightily. On a daily basis, Roberts said, the constant contact and friction pit his personal sense of compassion against his duty to protect the public at large.

“It’s a big issue in this community,” Roberts said, “and it’s just getting bigger.”

Officers often evict transients from their makeshift homes. Some of the wandering homeless accuse police of making a concerted effort to drive them away by tearing down their structures, taking their possessions or citing them for trespassing. Roberts shakes his head at that.

“We walk a very fine line,” he said. “Albeit there are city ordinances that prohibit a number of activities the transient population tends to engage in, we try to be mindful of the fact that they have no other means of providing for themselves or other place to go.”

Officers sometimes turn their heads if the campers stay low-key and don’t create hazards like open fires and debris. Roberts said the transients sometimes keep garbage bags or buckets with fecal matter near their camping spot, often open to public view and access. The parks department started using time locks on restroom doors after transients continually escaped there to find warmth and often started fires in the garbage cans, causing thousands of dollars in damage.

“It’s kind of like juggling elephants,” Roberts said. “You want to be mindful of their needs and the lack of opportunity for them, but at the same time, we have a duty to provide for the safety and security of the general population that we serve.”

Dealing with trespassers takes up plenty of police time, though a city trespass program has helped. About 160 business owners have signed up for the program, which gives police the authority to confront persons on private property after hours and arrest them for trespass if they return. Before, the police department had to contact business owners on a case-by-case basis to determine their wishes. Officers have documented over 400 as being trespassed from properties within the city since the program started in 2005.

Roberts knows many transients believe the police are out to make their lives miserable, but he deflects the notion.

“We don’t just arbitrarily pull names out of a hat and think we’re going to find this person,” Roberts said. “We’ve got a lot of other things to do. When you take anywhere from 2,800 to 3,300 calls for service each month, you’re busy.”

Roberts doesn’t argue that life on the streets is grueling. As the weather gets cold, he expects to see more desperation out there. Sometimes transients commit crimes simply to escape the cold. One man kicked a mirror off a police car and stood waiting to be arrested.

“They don’t want so much to go to jail,” he said. “They just want to be someplace other than where they are.”

Besides dealing with the elements, many individuals struggle with mental illness, Roberts said, and need some kind of mental health intervention.

“From Alzheimer’s to schizophrenia, you name it, we’ve got them all,” he said. “In part, that’s how they end up here. They come seeking services and just slide off into this transient population where they’re all hanging out together, eating together, drinking together, shoplifting together… .”

Oregon, Roberts said, has a significant void in the area of mental health and crisis intervention services. It often falls to the police officer on the beat and the criminal justice system to deal with mental illness.

“A lot of these people with mental health issues get rolled into a system that is not geared to deal with them,” Roberts said. “They may not have the mental capability to totally understand or comprehend — unfortunately, the system doesn’t readily recognize such deficiencies. So, they end up in jail or the criminal justice system… it becomes this vicious circle.”

Roberts said dealing with transients who demonstrate they are a danger to themselves or someone else pulls police off the streets, sometimes for hours. Protocol demands that an officer accompany the individual to St. Anthony Hospital for an evaluation. A mental health professional is called in to assess the individual’s mental state. More often than not, the individual is back out in the community within short order.

“Then, an hour later, we’re dealing with them again and we start all over,” the chief said. “Now, they’re on top of a building, a bridge, somewhere else, whatever — there are a thousand scenarios out there. The greatest frustration in dealing with transient populations is they’re in need of so many services that aren’t readily available.”

In cases where individuals must be transported to a psychiatric facility, two officers may spend up to six hours driving on and off the streets of Pendleton.

In reality, he said, the state should be providing more appropriate responses to individuals in crises. He recently said as much to gubernatorial candidates Chris Dudley and John Kitzhaber. Roberts is adamant that things need to change.

“The water has gotten very muddy. Oftentimes, first responders are expected to make a professional assessment of whether persons suffer from drug-induced psychosis versus true mental illness,” he said. “It’s problematic.”

Besides providing basic safety and security, officers must counsel, diagnose, provide service referral and are ultimately the conduit to beds in mental health facilities. All of this takes time.

“It’s extremely frustrating for us,” Roberts said. “If you look at the resources we have for the city of Pendleton, we have 11 square miles and a 17,000-plus population. When we get locked down with these kinds of people for three or four hours with an officer taken out of the equation, that means we only have two officers left to protect this city.”

Roberts is watching with intense interest as the Portland Police Department faces public outcry after several police shootings of mentally ill persons. Roberts urges the public to put themselves in the shoes of both the shooting victims and the officers who responded.

When the police show up with flashing lights, guns and badges, a person who is mentally ill may not react as expected. The confronted person is struggling to process what is happening and is scared out of his mind, causing him to shut down or respond with aggression.

“Now we’ve got them agitated,” Roberts said. “Now they’re lashing out, but they don’t have cognitive skills to know truly what they’re doing, which is a recipe for disaster.”

Mental illness, he said, causes people to act unpredictably and illogically, often in ways that don’t serve their own best interests and don’t fit police protocol. The result is not always what is best for the person in crisis.

These deadly force scenarios, he said, spotlight the need for better mental health services in the state.

“There’s a ripple effect to everything,” Roberts said. “If we’re not going to provide the appropriate services to this population of people, then either they’re going to be victimized, or they will victimize somebody else.”

Roberts said officers sometimes run into people who are on the streets, not because of mental illness or drugs, but simply because they were pushed over the edge financially during the recession.

“They exist, but we probably deal with them less than anybody else. There’s a pride element and a fear factor there,” Roberts said. “Typically, they will do anything and everything they can to maintain their anonymity. They’ve generally developed survival skills whether it is dumpster diving, doing remedial tasks for a business owner for food or whatever, they just do it. They know where and how to survive… locations of vacant houses, places they can sleep and feel safe. You typically will not see them on the corner saying, ‘Help, I need food.’”

The department often fields phone calls from citizens who are baffled about beggars, some accompanied by children, who stand on roadways with signs asking for food or money.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of phone calls we get from citizens saying, ‘What are they still doing here? I gave them a hundred dollars yesterday.’”

Roberts told of one notorious couple who worked Southgate with their 6-year-old child.

“Over a week’s time, phone calls indicated they’d gotten hundreds of dollars and food vouchers,” he said. “I finally went to them and said, ‘Look, the gig’s up, you need to move on.’”

These people, Roberts said, usually travel up and down the freeways and land in town only for a limited time. Most of Pendleton’s transients, however, struggle to survive day in and day out on city streets and in nearby wild areas. The lifestyle is exhausting and hard to escape.

And sometimes their activities bring them face-to-face with police officers who are sworn to protect and serve.

“It is a vicious circle,” Roberts said, “and unfortunately we’re on the merry-go-round with them.”