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 it’s root; rather the transients usually simply move to a new location and the cycle is started over again.
Impact on the Community
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.
In order to work towards longer-term solutions to addressing unlawful activities associated with unlawful camping, The Corvallis Police Department’s Community Livability Unit has sought out partnerships with other government agencies as well as non-governmental social services. Working with other government agencies (Parks Department, Public Works, ODOT) ensures a more consistent and thorough approach when dealing with the unlawful camps themselves; this includes consistency in posting camps, camp cleanups, and rehabilitating the areas where the camping was occurring to deter future unlawful camping. 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. The church staff were asked to participate because they operated a soup kitchen and had an existing positive relationship with many in the homeless community; we recognized simply inviting transients to the police department for a meeting was not likely to be successful. As the biweekly meetings continued we were able to establish a rapport with many homeless people and work with them to come up with ideas on how to affect positive change. From this we confirmed there was a disconnect between the homeless community and social services. We also learned the homeless community was aware of the inconsistencies in how the City addressed unlawful camping.
Based on Research
The Corvallis Police Department has a long history of collaborating with Oregon State University staff and students to address unlawful activity related to alcohol consumption, noise, and other livability issues related to Corvallis’ student population. This experience has 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.
As our biweekly homeless panel meetings continued, other social service providers and community members joined. This was a key component of the process. By participating in those discussions, some of the social service providers experienced a distinct shift in their perception of law enforcement; we were not an adversary, but an ally in addressing many of these issues. Some social service providers struggled to recognize CPD was taking a ‘big picture’ approach to the issue, pointing to other agencies Colorado Springs PD and San Luis Obispo PD as examples of what we should be doing. While some social service providers were more open to changing their perceptions of police, we continue to work on building the trust of others, consistently assuring them we are attempting to engage them in partnerships to work towards those types of best practices.
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. It is not practical to attach a dollar amount to a percentage of time that this team is engaged in homeless/camping problems.
Hard costs for the Corvallis Police Department have essentially only consisted of a few hundred dollars to printing notices for posting homeless camps, a cost that would have been incurred whether this project was in place or not.
Other City Departments have incurred more significant costs related to camp cleanups. For large-scale campsites, CPD has partnered with Public Works, Parks and Rec Department, and/or ODOT to not only clean up the trash left behind, but (where feasible) clear out the underbrush and smaller vegetation to deter future unlawful camping. For most areas, trash cleanup has been accomplished by City staff with only the additional expense of disposing of the garbage (usually several tons per cleanup). 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, including picking the dates of when the campsites will posted and cleaned up, if/when the campsite areas will be cleared out (of vegetation), and other aspects of the process. This has provided those other entities with a greater sense of ownership in the solution, rather than feeling like they are being directed by the police department. 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. When we first began this process, most people who were unlawfully camping disregarded the unlawful camping notices, and on the day of cleanup little to no action had been taken to actually remove any of their belongings. On the above mentioned recent posting of 41 campsites, approximately 1/4 of the campsites were vacated prior to posting them, since the campers had been advised of the date the camps were going to be posted. At the time the camps were posted, the remaining campers all knew they were going to be posted and were all aware of the date the camps were going to be cleaned up.
The third and perhaps most significant result is the increased involvement with social services. Starting with social services being involved in the biweekly homeless panel, there has been a greater partnership between social service providers and the police department. 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. The traditional law enforcement response to unlawful camping is fairly straightforward: respond to a call for service, follow established protocols, and arrest/cite those not in compliance. Building partnerships to involve other governmental agencies is not typical, but for a complex problem such as this it is important. 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. This is where the true solution lies, yet it is outside of the purview of law enforcement to provide these services. Thus engaging social services in the process is a critical step to success.
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, come up with solutions, and then implement those solutions in a fairly timely manner. This seems to be 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.
We also observed some groups have an inherent mistrust of law enforcement, and it takes a great deal of time to overcome those misconceptions. Surprisingly, this was less prevalent in the homeless community than it was with social service providers. Although social service providers are generally perceived to be forward-thinking or open-minded, we encountered some individuals that were resolute in their refusal to work with law enforcement. It is important to continue to work on those relationships, even though it may require a significant investment of time and effort.