When you see an ambulance speeding through Portland, it’s easy to believe that it is headed to the scene of a car accident or a heart attack.
It often is. But all too often the destination is a so-called "layout," or a street drunk who has collapsed in public.
Addiction, homelessness and mental illness are complex problems that are often inextricably entwined. They are too much for the emergency medical services or police to handle on their own. That’s why we are encouraged by the public-private collaboration that is putting outreach workers on the streets this summer, engaging with homeless people and getting them the services they need.
This approach, which combines the efforts of the city’s public health department, nonprofit social service agencies and funding from both the federal government and local businesses, offers a better way to address these serious problems. It should also save the city some money.
Some will rail that it would be better to eliminate all services and criminalize panhandling and public drunkenness, but that won’t do anything to address the underlying problems that cause this behavior.
Filling the jails and emergency rooms with even more addicted and mentally ill people is not only inhumane, but puts a tremendous strain on public services. And treating street drunks as an entirely public safety problem does nothing to help business owners, because police can’t act until after a crime has been committed.
Instead, two-person outreach teams walk the streets and talk to the homeless people they meet. When appropriate, they can call for transportation to bring people to services like the Milestone Foundation shelter and detox center. The outreach workers say they have two groups of clients — street people and local business owners, who lose customers when the sidewalks outside their establishments are de facto day shelters for people who need help.
Combined with other programs that get at the root of homelessness, this effort will make Portland more livable for all its residents.