There were 511 homeless people in Umatilla County on January 31, 2018, according to the Community Action Program of East Central Oregon. About 290 of them were living in Pendleton.
Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said that population is increasing, though he couldn’t provide his own quantifiable number.
Transients frequently panhandle near the Pendleton Wal-Mart, but many try to stay out of sight, whether it’s in a tent along the Umatilla River, in an RV on a secluded street, or a nook in a public park.
Just this summer, Roberts said Stillman Park on Byers Avenue has become a hub for homeless people looking for a place to spend the day. It has shade and benches, bathrooms and a place to charge cell phones and electronics.
Police cruisers can often be spotted patrolling the parking lot across from Stillman, but Roberts said that law enforcement presence is supposed to act more as a deterrent than a response.
He said he could send officers to a place like the Salvation Army and would likely find several homeless people wanted on warrants, but he doesn’t want to take that approach.
Roberts said members of the public often get irate and call his department looking for law enforcement to bring the “hammer” on homeless people who are trespassing or shoplifting. Police follow through in many of these situations, he said, but the problem remains on where to how to handle these people in the longterm, especially in a city with a dearth of homeless services.
Options for care
Neighbor 2 Neighbor provides one of those services, operating a warming station during the winter.
The nonprofit recently expanded to include a summer day center with shower access, but board chairman Dwight Johnson said its resources only allow it stay open for three hours every two weeks.
CAPECO is looking to add to those services. The organization is eying the former Blue Cross Blue Shield building on the corner of S.E. Second St. and Frazer Ave. to implement a day program that would serve the homeless community. It could provide basic needs such as a place to charge cell phones, eat a meal and potentially take a shower. James Rinehart, a case manager with CAPECO, said he has met with City Manager Robb Corbett and a committee to explore the plan.
“They liked the idea, they support the idea. The biggest thing that we’re finding is getting the funding to either purchase the building or to have someone donate a building that we can get into,” Rinehart said.
The former insurance building would be a great location because it would take little work to get it running, said Rinehart. One downside is that it may not be suitable for showers, since they would be expensive to install.
The program is still in early planning stages, with the biggest challenge being the financial burden of purchasing a building and funding the operations. Rinehart said the ideal solution would be to have someone step up with $100,000 to sponsor the program to get it going.
“We really need the community’s help in meeting this need,” he said. “This isn’t just our agency’s responsibility, or certain agencies, this is a community issue.”
Johnson, a sergeant for the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office, said many of the facility’s users have substance abuse problems, a mental illness or both.
He said the state’s laws surrounding these issues need reform, but in the meantime, Neighbor 2 Neighbor is dedicated to breaking the “cycle of dysfunction” that often follows homeless people instead of enabling them.
“We don’t want to be a toxic charity,” he said.
Although Roberts said there was a criminal element in the homeless population, most homeless people are looking to deflect attention rather than attract it.
Bolstering homeless services might be a better use of public resources than using law enforcement and the court system to police the homeless, he added.
“You’re going to spend this money, one way or another,” he said.