ONTARIO — In the few months Chief Steven Romero has been leading Ontario Police Department he has been working hard on initiatives to get ahead of homelessness. This has included working with property owners who are out of the area to get permission to enforce criminal violations on their property. Romero and his team have also been educating property owners about crime prevention through environmental design, which is a process that he says “provides guidance on how to adjust the environment so it’s less desirable or accommodating.”
There are myriad encampments of homeless people throughout the city, Romero says, stressing that in the majority of cases, those people are criminally trespassing on private property.
The chief aims to start addressing the encampments sooner rather than later, however, and as such has launched a homeless task force. Romero has his sights set on a regional collaboration to address a homelessness epidemic that he says is nothing new at the national, regional or local levels.
“What I’m trying to create is what’s called a true wraparound service,” Romero said, explaining that it would be a large group comprising “big and small players,” from local agencies who would ensure homeless individuals have access to needed resources.
“The Legislature needs to look at reality and take a more realistic approach to the problem” he said. “It’s everybody’s problem, but nobody wants to take drastic measures.”
The chief pointed to larger cities such as San Francisco where the homeless population has climbed to 20,000.
Romero a month ago got together for a tabletop exercise on the local issue with people from several agencies, including Ontario police and fire departments, Treasure Valley Paramedics, Department of Human Services, Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Initiative and Lifeways.
“We spent four hours mapping out a strategy for a response to the epidemic in our region,” he said.
In identifying how to develop a response plan, the biggest problem is a lack of infrastructure to help those homeless people who are mentally ill, rather than putting them in jail where they are not getting treatment.
“Jail is not the solution, clinical care is,” Romero said, adding that the closest psychiatric facility in Oregon is on the other side of the state, adding that Ontario Police Department doesn’t have the resources to take people there.
The only option currently then is voluntary commitment, but that is often unattainable.
“How do you get an irrational person to make a rational decision,” he asked.
Because there is no available psychiatric emergency treatment facility on this side of the state, Romero said the Legislature needs to make a “legal alternative for the eastern Oregon region,” which may include building infrastructure or even contracting with other states on involuntary committals, providing standards are met.
The chief is hopeful that state officials will not be “more caught up on the cost than the actual fix.”
“We need options — bottom line,” he said, adding that without such a facility or the ability to contract with one in a neighboring state, a wraparound service might not ever get off the ground.
Part of such a service would be identifying those individuals who are willing to get care or improve, and for those unwilling, the ability for law enforcement to make a determination in the best interest of everyone.
“These are sick people,” he said of people who are living on the streets, but Romero firmly believes improving things is a matter of education and treatment versus incarceration.
The police chief cautioned that mental illness could easily happen to anyone.
“We’re all vulnerable,” he said. “Some odds are stacked, and some people are more unfortunate than others. However, we cannot predict the future.”
While he will enforce the law on those breaking it, Romero still would rather help people and see their situations improve.
However, it is ultimately up to the individual, and you can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves, he said.
“It takes a conscious effort to make good choices,” the chief said, adding that you can not easily force a rational decision on an irrational person who does not want it.
“The key phrase is ‘want it,’” Romero said. “Some people don’t want it.”
Mental illness and drug addiction is a societal problem, the chief said, and unless we combat that first, nothing else can happen.
Everyone working together is the only way we’re going to get a grip on this, he said, adding that some efforts are more effective than others.
A few years back a group of people were working on getting tiny houses set up in the area for homeless, something former Police Chief Mark Clark was adamantly against.
Romero expanded on why he too didn’t feel it was the answer.
In addition to a tiny house potentially becoming an eviction issue it is more of a band-aid than fix.
“If you put new clothes and shoes on someone, they still smell awful and still have problems. Because you didn’t treat the problems, they are still there,” he said, further driving that message home with a final thought: “If you only hack at the branches and limbs, you still have the root of the problem.”