A few nights ago I spent time with the new Chief of Portland Police by Sandra Comstock

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A few nights ago I spent time with the new Chief of Portland Police, Danielle Outlaw, and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, surrounded - as well - by the leadership from Street Roots, Right2Survive, and Sisters of the Road. While our meeting had been scheduled last week, the recent police killing of a mentally ill man inside a temporary shelter for the homeless weighed heavily on all minds.

In this context (and in the context of Mayor Wheeler’s recent request to move money from the general fund to increase police staffing) Chief Outlaw asked whether adding more police officers dedicated to “social service” type community engagement might be useful...

My immediate thought was: that is the wrong question to ask and is premised on a faulty logic. The logic behind that question is: we need to hire more police - and more social-work oriented police specifically - because police are receiving more calls than ever involving distressed populations. But is more police the best way to handle this uptick in calls ? The truth is you only need more police IF the calls you are receiving are related to CRIME. In FACT, by the Police Bureau’s own definition, 32% of the rise in PPB’s call volume are related to non-criminal, ‘disorder’ calls.

Disorder calls, in police-speak - are calls where citizens phone in because they are “concerned” about something or someone in their vicinity. According to PPB Portland’s disorder-related calls fall into three categories: welfare checks, ‘unwanted persons,’ and ‘suspicious’ persons or activities. Of the 32% rise in disorder calls over the last year 10,000 were requests for welfare checks; 10,000 were complaints about the presence of ‘unwanted persons;’ and 7,000 were reports of ‘suspicious’ people or activities. ‘Suspicious’ people are most often people that citizens view as ‘not belonging’ in or to their neighborhood.

What is the reason for this 27,000 call rise in disorder calls? I would venture to say that a significant proportion of the callers complaining of ‘unwanted’ or ‘suspicious’ persons were hoping the police might assist them in clearing homeless people away from their homes, businesses, schools, or libraries. In addition, I suspect that a vast number of the 10,000 welfare checks were related to persons showing distress from the daily traumas of being pushed from place to place to place by police ejecting people from camps and by private businesses ejecting houseless people from their places of business because of their status as obviously unhoused.

Increasing Portland’s police force is a counter-productive response to the marked increase in these types of calls. Rather, than reducing or deterring the problem people are calling about, more police engagement will instead likely intensify the volume of distress and unwanted persons calls as more encounters between police and the unhoused generate:

* MORE trauma from stressful interactions with officers

* ADDITIONAL calls to complain about ‘unwanted’ and upset people who are showing up in yet another part of the city after they have been kicked out of the last

* MORE tickets for trespassing that fail to deter unhoused people who still - by necessity - have to rest, sleep, and survive in public space SOMEWHERE, regardless of what the law dictates.

* MORE court resources used to issue warrants and hold hearings to punish and charge the destitute for not having the wherewithal to pay tickets or stop living and surviving in public space

* More carceral system resources spent jailing people for their inability to pay fines or stop surviving in public

* MORE trauma from incarceration and the stress of navigating the court system.

To reiterate - much of the increase in public requests for police are the result of the fact that UNHOUSED people are not welcome in public places. And while citizens call the police hoping to banish unhoused citizens from their presence, no matter the punishment, the unhoused community has no choice but to continue sleeping, resting, and being visible in public. They have no choice because they have neither private nor public places where they might legitimately move their daily activities to. Hiring more officers and increasing police encounters would only have the net effect of increasing the anxiety, indebtedness, incarceration, and legal entanglement of unhoused citizens. In other words, more police would ironically INCREASE the ‘disorder’ they are supposed to eradicate.

But there is a way we could in fact free up police time and resources. This could be achieved by eliminating the reasons behind many ‘disorder related’ requests for police in the first place. We could do this by designating public spaces where our homeless neighbors would be officially allowed to safely make camp, rest, recreate, and determine reasonable rules of conduct and responsibility. This would provide a spot where unhoused people were wanted, not suspicious, and less emotionally vulnerable. I believe this would result in a sharp fall in citizen calls to police to clear away those who ‘don’t belong’ or ‘are unwanted.’ 

Designated public camping areas would provide our unhoused neighbors with places where they DID belong, and where they might live more private and secure lives. Moreover, the unhoused would no longer be legally trespassing when sleeping on public land. This would reduce the need to use police to fine and evict people. It would additionally alleviate the anxiety related to fear of being moved and losing one’s last earthly possessions. Safe, reliable, legal places to rest and make camp would remove the constant worry and fear produced by being perpetually, callously, and unpredictably rousted, as well as fined and jailed for trespassing. Finally, It would allow networks of mutual support and friendship within camps and the broader community to flourish, undisrupted by the perpetual evictions of the past. All these changes would improve the mental health of the unhoused by leaps and bounds.

Lest you think these are “pie in the sky” ideas - we already have constructive working examples and models right here in Portland. Dignity Village, Right2DreamToo, and Hazelnut Grove all serve as laboratories from which to learn and improve. Moreover, we also have the additional example of Sisters of the Road Cafe. Sisters serves as a welcoming, self-governed space in where our unhoused community can enjoy a place that welcomes and provides a warm, dry space of belonging, support, recreation, and social exchange. Legislating and investing in spaces like these would dramatically reduce both police calls and the public expense incurred from punishing the unhoused. It would halt the perpetual moving of homeless portland residents around the city to no positive end or purpose. Our homeless neighbors are not going away - not in a climate of austerity and further reductions to our social safety nets. Evicting homeless neighbors from public spaces will not change their presence on Portland streets.

To paraphrase what Chief Outlaw said herself in our meeting this evening: When people ask me what we, the police, are going to do about the homeless, I say that is not really precisely a policing problem. Because - AFTER ALL, IT IS NOT A CRIME TO BE HOMELESS.

While it is not ostensibly a crime to be homeless, the city has set up rules that prohibit the houseless from going about the tasks of surviving (sleeping, eating, washing, relieving oneself) if it is done in the public sphere. This encourages housed citizens to view all acts of survival carried out in public as crimes. This in turn encourages them to call the police. And these same rules then allow/ even require the police to respond by issuing tickets, which when unpaid become warrants, which become arrests, which become incarceration, which, taken together, become a huge source of mental stress, which when unrelenting enough becomes mental illness. Thus, more adding more police to attend increases in the calls to banish the homeless contributes to an endless upwardly and outwardly spiraling merry-go-round of targeting, punishment, incarceration, and mental degradation.

There is a simple solution to solve this problem and it most definitely does not involve additional police. It is the creation of public spaces where the unhoused are invited to organize the work of survival in a healthy, constructive, self-determining manner.

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Sandra Comstock is a Portland based sociologist.  She helps coordinate the Right 2 Survive Ambassadors program bringing housed and unhoused neighbors together to devise neighborhood based solutions to the challenges and burdens of living on the streets.

Sandra Comstock is a Portland based sociologist.  She helps coordinate the Right 2 Survive Ambassadors program bringing housed and unhoused neighbors together to devise neighborhood based solutions to the challenges and burdens of living on the streets.