Kent Police Commander Mike O’Reilly, who oversees a special operation unit focused on the homeless, describe the department’s latest efforts in addressing the crisis during a public meeting Oct. 18 at Neely-O’Brien Elementary School. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Kent Police Commander Mike O’Reilly, who oversees a special operation unit focused on the homeless, describe the department’s latest efforts in addressing the crisis during a public meeting Oct. 18 at Neely-O’Brien Elementary School. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

A network, with emphasis

Kent Police, service partners tackling community’s homeless situation

Kent Police and service partners are pulling the mask off homelessness and looking at direct ways to stare down this chronic, community problem.

A police special operations unit is using intervention, education and enforcement to get more people off the street, away from underpasses, and out of the woods.

Success, officials say, depends largely on the support of agencies, nonprofit organizations and volunteers with heart. The challenge, they say, is daunting, especially given an understaffed police force and the shortage of affordable housing in the area.

That was the predominate message during a special presentation on homelessness at a public meeting Oct. 18 at Neely-O’Brien Elementary School.

The 95-minute meeting gave concerned residents a chance to talk with Chief Rafael Padilla, Command staff and other police department staff about homelessness, crime trends, crime prevention and police department programs. The meeting offered a presentation and a question-and-answer session between the audience and police and community service leaders.

“I’d like to think that what we’re doing is pretty cutting edge in partnering with all the different resources. I feel positive about it,” said Commander Mike O’Reilly, whose unit patrols and deals with homeless people in the field, connecting them to the help they need. “Homelessness is always going to be around in some fashion. It’s about reducing it as best as we can in our community.

“It’s challenging but rewarding. … I like what we are doing.”

The problem is widespread, multi-faceted, and difficult to pin down.

King County, based on its annual point-in-time count in January, found 12,112 people experiencing homelessness in the county, up 4 percent from 2017’s tally of 11,643. Primary drivers of this spike in the 2018 count were an increase of people living in cars, RVs, or vans. In 2018, an estimated 3,372 individuals were living in vehicles, up 46 percent from 2017.

For Kent, the number of migratory homeless here is difficult to quantify, police say. Officer Joe Mello with the special ops unit estimates he comes across between 200 and 300 homeless victims in any given week.

To get a picture, Kent officials mapped 41 inactive “homeless campsite hot spots” on city-owned property earlier this year, according to a city report.

While residents say police are not doing enough to reduce homelessness, some applaud the efforts, and others say much more needs to be done.

One woman said the homeless problem has reached her neighborhood. Another woman said property crime, whether associated with the homeless or not, has picked up.

Police encourage action.

“If you see something, you have to say something,” Mello said. “Report it. You’re never wasting our time.”

One man asked if the city would consider confining Kent’s homeless to a open-space settlement, perhaps a park.

Padilla quickly shot that idea down.

“That question has been asked at times, but is that a model that’s been successful?” Padilla asked the audience, alluding to the strife of other encampments, notably throughout Seattle. “My … concern is if you build it, they would come kind of thing. … We’re looking for long-term solutions, and we value our public spaces for everyone.”

Police and city staff are working close with the homeless, connecting them to service providers such as Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM) and Catholic Community Services (CCS) as alternatives to living at campsites.

Brian Chandler, outreach director for UGM, said his organization has been busy doing all it can. With UGM’s support, KentHOPE’s Day Center for Women and Children reached a major milestone this fall: 500 women and their children have been transitioned into housing through the work of staff and volunteers since the nonprofit began four-plus years ago.

Lisa Christen, CCS program director, added that local shelters are limited and often run full.

CCS plans to build about 80 units to provide housing for the homeless behind the Lowe’s store on Kent’s West Hill, a project that’s expected to be completed next year.

Sally Goodgion, who operates Willow’s Place, a community and business-coordinated outreach for the homeless, asked if there’s room for more service providers. The city said it hopes to expand partnerships.

Those partnerships are making a difference in working with the homeless, police said. There have been success stories of homeless victims finding permanent housing.

“Our police department is doing amazing work, and they are doing that with amazing partners,” said Mayor Dana Ralph. “This is not something the city alone can tackle. … It takes partners and it takes willingness.”

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