Recognizing the Criminal Justice System Cannot Solve Homelessness — But There Are Other Solutions

There has been a crisis on our streets long before our community was hit by the coronavirus.

Multnomah County has been experiencing unprecedented levels of homelessness for years. Today, people living out of their cars, in shelters, or on our streets are facing even greater challenges as they try to keep from getting sick. This is a failure of our entire system, and now more than ever we have a moral imperative to solve it. We won’t be able to keep our community healthy and safe until everyone has a place to go home to.

Homelessness affects everyone living in our region. Whether you are a neighbor, a business owner, a worker, a student, a renter, a homeowner, or houseless, we all recognize the failures in our system that led us to this place. When our community begins the process of rebuilding our economy, restoring social connections, and trying to find a new normal, we have to continue to fight for those who had the least to begin with.

Our current approach to prosecuting homeless individuals works against our community efforts to end chronic homelessness. The District Attorney’s office cannot solve this crisis alone — and too often makes the problem worse.

By adding criminal charges to the record of someone experiencing homelessness, we make it harder for them to find housing and obtain gainful employment. Our current system of “catch-and-release” leaves neighbors and business owners feeling less safe, increases barriers to getting individuals off the street for good, and diminishes trust in the criminal justice system.

Seventy-five percent of individuals on the street report suffering from mental illness, addiction, or both. For these individuals, the threat of arrest won’t change behaviors. Our community knows we cannot use the criminal justice system to fix addiction or mental illness. We can’t just arrest our way out of this problem.

According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, in Oregon 9% of offenders account for 29% of all jail bookings. Of those bookings, only 2% are for an accusation of a felony person crime. We know who these chronic offenders are, and it’s clear that the current approach is not changing their behavior, getting them off the streets, or keeping our communities safer. And it’s an enormous waste of money, which could be put to better use expanding access to mental health care and addiction treatment.

As your District Attorney, I will be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Let’s reform the way the DA’s office does business and align strategies with community partners and public agencies toward a common goal of getting people off the streets, and into housing and healthcare. My campaign has been endorsed by the entire Multnomah County Commission, local city councilors, school board members, health experts, and social service providers and others who have worked with me in the past and believe that by focusing our resources in a collaborative way, we can make progress in tackling this issue.

Oregon should be looking at establishing problem-solving courts for houseless defendants who are facing minor charges. Just as we have drug courts and mental health courts, we should have systems in place that are focused on keeping people out of the criminal justice system and moving them towards self-sufficiency. I would like to see the legislature and local public safety officials look into this, and I think that Multnomah County could be a great place to launch a pilot program.

Our community has taken some big steps — enacting new laws, cutting red tape, dedicating public and private resources, collaborating across jurisdictions, and approving two regional housing bonds to create permanently affordable homes.

We should also be supporting Measure 26–210, Metro’s homeless services measure. This measure will fund services in our region at the scale needed to match the scope of the problem. You can learn more about the measure and its supporters at WeAreHereTogether.org.

It will take our entire community — both public and private sectors — to find real, long-term solutions. Our community is living with the consequences of decades of disinvestment in affordable housing and social services, piecemeal approaches to healthcare outcomes, a failed war on drugs, and growing income inequality. These are big challenges, but we know what we have to do. As your District Attorney, I promise to do my part.

Candidate for Multnomah County District Attorney

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