Patrolling Downtown: Eugene Police work to help those on the streets

Eugene Police spent 6 months collaborating with other organizations to create the Community Outreach Resource Team. The program takes a new and unique approach to helping Downtown Eugene's most chronic criminal offenders. (SBG photo)

EUGENE, Ore. - Ryan Garner came to Eugene from California 18 months ago and has been homeless since he arrived. Once a user of illegal drugs, Garner said he is making positive changes in his life thanks to the work of Eugene's Community Outreach Resource Team.

"They helped me get off drugs and involved with treatment," Garner said. "They 100 percent helped me get my life back on track."

Garner said the team helped him find shelter while also giving him a bicycle to make getting around town easier. They also provided him with counseling and guidance to be a stable force in his life.

The Community Outreach Resource Team -- or CORT -- was an idea of Eugene Police Sgt. Julie Smith. The program takes a new and unique approach to helping Downtown Eugene's most chronic criminal offenders.

"We ask the question, 'Why are you here today? What happened in your life that got you here? What can we do to help you fix that so next time you may not get violent or you may not abuse drugs,'" Smith said. "I think it’s the way of policing in the future."

Eugene Police collaborated with social service programs CAHOOTS and White Bird Clinic to form the Community Outreach Resource Team. The six-month pilot program operated from April through late October. Every Thursday morning, team members would meet and travel together around downtown, helping those who were willing to accept the help.

"It's been a way to concentrate resources and get results that alone we would not have gotten," Chelsea Swift of the White Bird clinic said. "This team is the ultimate collaboration."

The team says it helped 64 people during the six-month program and many of those found permanent housing.

"Without ongoing contact with these folks, we would not have had that success," Manning Walker, a medic with CAHOOTS said. "We are doing a different type of service. As an outreach and case management service, we have to look for individuals who expect us. We pick up from where we left off the week before."

In addition to breaking the cycle of multiple trips to jail for some people or getting people off the streets, the team also believes it helped build trust between police and the homeless community.

"We set a precedent by which we are saying it’s safe to accept help that allows people to reach out," Walker said. "It builds success in their peer group."

Swift, who works as an advocate for the homeless with White Bird Clinic and CORT, was skeptical about the work police did before she joined the program. Now, that view has changed.

"I'm usually on the street with my coworkers who previously experienced homelessness and experienced trauma that came from law enforcement," she said. "My expectations have been blown out of the water. Seeing the connection officers have with clients has been eye-opening. Seeing their genuine care and their genuine ability to track their progress and history."

There is no word yet if CORT will receive approval to come back. Eugene Police chief Pete Kerns said the department doesn't have the staffing to maintain the program in its current form. Those budget issues would have to be addressed by the city of Eugene. However, Kerns was happy with the results of the program's test run as it persuaded people to seek help.

"From the humaneness of the approach, it is so much better to work together with people who need our help who are calling on police or whose behavior affects police, " Kerns said. "It puts them in a much better, healthier place."

The members of CORT want to see the program resurrected and even expanded. Walker believes with more time dedicated to the program, the team can be even more successful.

"Being limited in our ability one day a week, with a block of just a few hours a day made it hard to move forward on a continuous basis throughout a single day and that inhibited their ability to follow through," Walker said.

For now, the team is pleased with its results. Looking ahead, those results offer hope that this new, community driven approach can help even more people who need it the most.

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