Problematic Behavior or Activity
Unlawful camping is a chronic issue that affects a wide cross-section of the community. Behaviors associated with unlawful camping include littering, human waste, disorderly conduct, and a variety of other issues (criminal or not) that affect livability throughout the City. While City ordinances are in place to address the unlawful activity, arresting or citing people does not address the problem at its root. Rather, the transients move to a new location and the cycle is started over again.
Unlawful camping issues often result in significant sanitation issues from trash and human waste. Additionally, when areas such as parks have multiple people camping, many members of the community do not feel safe and will discontinue using the area, associating transient camps with drug use and violence. However, many community members also feel empathy towards the homeless and feel conflicted, as they want to help those who are "down on their luck." Thus law enforcement must address the unlawful behaviors in an appropriate manner, while striving to not just displace the problem.
The Corvallis Police Department’s Community Livability Unit has sought out partnerships with other government agencies as well as non-governmental social services (Parks Department, Public Works, ODOT) to ensure a more consistent and thorough approach when dealing with the unlawful camps themselves. Partnering with social services enhances communication with the homeless community and builds trust, while simultaneously providing resources that may address mental health issues, substance abuse issues, or other hurdles to the homeless population that prevent them from improving their living conditions.
We began by partnering with a local church to act as a facilitator in biweekly panel meetings with homeless community members, since they had an existing positive relationship with many in the homeless community. Through biweekly meetings we were able to establish a rapport with many homeless people and work with them to develop ideas on how to affect positive change.
Based On Research
Prior experiences with local agencies and businesses have shown there is much more to be gained by involving everyone in working towards solutions rather than working separately. This approach, combined with proactive law enforcement, has resulted in significant decreases in calls for service related to loud parties, disorderly conduct, etc. in areas with high concentrations of off-campus housing.
The Corvallis Police Department has a Community Livability Unit consisting of a sergeant and five officers. While this team is not singularly tasked with addressing homeless camps, it does fall within their mission as a livability issue. There were costs beyond expected operational costs for the police department.
Other City Departments have incurred more significant costs related to camp cleanups. One campsite was in a wetland area, prohibiting the use of heavy equipment in cleaning up several years' worth of trash accumulation; the City had to contract with a company to clean that trash, costing an additional $35,000. ODOT, when cleaning their campsites, has utilized inmate work crews to reduce costs.
There has been limited success with clearing the campsites, with other agencies citing studies that need to be done, lack of funding, etc. prohibiting them from clearing the site.
The first impact the Corvallis Police Department has observed is increased communication and transparency with the homeless community. By participating in the biweekly homeless panel meetings, we have been able to offer explanations of policy, procedure, and law in a conversation that is often difficult to have in the field when a camp is being posted. We have built some level of trust, so many homeless community members have a better understanding of their responsibilities and our response. We have observed a change in behavior based on these conversations, including many campers keeping their trash picked up to avoid generating complaints. As a further case in point, we recently posted a total of 41 homeless camps in an area where several of our panel members were camping. In the subsequent homeless panel meeting, rather than complaining and being upset that their camps had been posted, they acknowledged we were ‘just doing our job’ and had provided a great deal of advanced notice and social service engagement.
The second impact we have observed is a greater consistency in how large homeless camps are addressed. We have partnered with other governmental entities to develop plans on how to address each campsite individually. This has provided those other entities with a greater sense of ownership in the solution, rather than feeling like the police department is directing them. This has also provided more consistency with those who are unlawfully camping; once dates are selected, campers are notified verbally (with as much advance warning as practical) of the date the camps will be posted, and the date they will be cleaned up. These dates are then adhered to. This impact can be observed by the change in behavior by the campers.
The third and, perhaps, most significant result is the increased involvement with social services. Social service providers from several agencies have gone with us when we post campsites, so we have a ‘warm hand-off’ of the homeless person to the social service provider when they ask the inevitable “Where am I supposed to go?” when their camp is posted. We have also increased transparency of where and when we are going to post campsites, so social service providers can go to those campsites prior to posting to attempt to engage the homeless in social services. During the course of this process a group of social service providers formed a Street Outreach and Response Team (SORT) for the purpose of engaging the homeless in social services. Many of the people we have been working with are on the SORT team and have supported the police department when their peers have offered an adversarial view of law enforcement. While this relationship is still evolving, building a partnership with social service providers has been an important factor in a more holistic approach to finding a long-term solution to unlawful behaviors associated with unlawful camping.
Critical Success Factors
The most crucial component of this process is the willingness to build partnerships with others. Involving other entities such as Parks and Rec, Public Works, and ODOT in the process brings more resources to bear on the issues to ensure consistency and thoroughness in cleaning and clearing the campsites.
The partnership with social services in addressing unlawful camping is also atypical for law enforcement, but it is a crucial relationship. This partnership can bear the most fruit in terms of long-term success, by providing non-law enforcement services such as mental health, job placement, and housing for unlawful campers.
It is quite unusual to think of law enforcement building a partnership with the homeless community to address unlawful camping, but to an extent this is also an important piece of working towards a solution. During this process we have consistently made it clear there is no "get out of jail free card" or "safe zone," but have worked to ensure we are transparent and educational in our approach. In return the homeless community has been less adversarial. As an additional result, when local media has come out to unlawful campsites (we have invited them out with us) the homeless that are interviewed typically tell the media about how reasonable the police department is.
Law enforcement professionals are trained to assess a problem, develop with solutions, and then implement those solutions in a fairly timely manner. This is somewhat unique to our profession; many others involved in these partnerships needed much more time, data, and direction to move towards implementation. We found it is important to have new ideas or concepts vetted by persons in positions of authority within a work group, but once the concepts were approved the front-line workers were often more focused on implementation.
Some of the social service providers even experienced a distinct shift in their perception of law enforcement; we were not an adversary, but an ally in addressing many of these issues. While some social service providers were more open to changing their perceptions of police, we continue to build the trust of others, consistently assuring them we are attempting to engage them in partnerships to work towards those types of best practices. It is important to continue to work on those relationships, even though it may require a significant investment of time and effort.
Public Notice Example