Sunday, March 31, 2024

Liveability - the key to success in community development

Liveability is not only physical infrastructure - Photo courtesy of Denys Nevozhai - Unsplash

by Mateja Mihinjac

What is liveability? Liveability is one of those buzzwords that has been used extensively in urban development and city planning circles. Yet, it is one of those words that mean different things to different people and organisations and they rarely offer a consensus on what it means.

For example, the Online Cambridge Dictionary defines liveability as “the degree to which a place is suitable or good for living in”.

The organization, Partners for Livable Communities, takes a more specific approach: “Livability is the sum of the factors that add up to a community’s quality of life—including the built and natural environments, economic prosperity, social stability and equity, educational opportunity, and cultural, entertainment and recreation possibilities.”

Different definitions of liveability raise some important questions. Is liveability simply a binary concept? What parameters should it consider?


IS IT JUST BINARY?

Over the years, and especially since Greg Saville and I wrote our first article on Third Generation CPTED in 2019, I’ve had interesting discussions in professional circles about liveability.


At some point, liveability must mean the perspectives of people


First, I am asked about levels of liveability. In our article, Greg and I proposed neighbourhood liveability exists on a spectrum from advanced level to moderate and basic level neighbourhoods. An advanced-level neighbourhood will be highly liveable and offer opportunities for addressing the lowest and the highest level personal and social needs. Conversely, the neighbourhood at the basic level will generally have a bare minimum infrastructure and services for addressing the basic level physiological and psychological needs.

Sometimes, I am asked whether liveability exists or it doesn’t exist – a binary relationship. That would mean we should classify neighbourhoods as either liveable or non-liveable. 

In our view, liveability should be assessed on a spectrum similar to that of personal health. There are many levels of health with a multitude of contributing factors; we don’t simply say one is healthy while another is unhealthy. Similarly, as we describe in our 3rd Generation article, liveability of a neighbourhood has many facets that may contribute to higher levels of liveability in some categories and lower in others.

Existing liveability indices support our view. The continuum of liveability shows up when world cities are ranked based on their liveability scores in relation to economic, health, physical, and social factors. Organisations using these indices affirm there is a continuum of liveability. 

For example, 

  • The Economist’s Intelligence Unit assigns different weighing to categories of stability, healthcare, culture & environment, education, and infrastructure to calculate the total index. 
  • Mercer’s Quality of Living City Ranking uses categories of political stability, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and socio-cultural environment. 

These are just some examples of why it appears unproductive to refer to liveability as a binary concept.


Integrating green with concrete infrastructures can improve livability - Photo courtesy of Unsplash

WHOSE LIVEABILITY PARAMETERS?

Another point of contention is the categories employed when evaluating liveability. The Centre for Liveable Cities points to the tangible elements associated with physical infrastructure and availability of services like housing affordability, road access, school, and shopping access.

Undoubtedly, such services are paramount for a good quality of life. Unsurprisingly, cities like Singapore and Vienna score highly on the liveability scale largely due to these types of elements. 

But a question remains: Should we rely on those categories defined by the organisations conducting liveability surveys? Or should we delve deeper and identify what liveability means to people living in a particular neighbourhood? 

Our choice is the second option – liveability should be based on residents’ assessment of whether their needs and desires are being addressed where they live. This might make comparisons between neighborhoods difficult and it will surely annoy evaluators. However, the methodological needs of the evaluators seem secondary to the needs of the residents. It seems more realistic to ask those who actually live in a place to define their own perceptions of where they live. 


Liveable cities offer social places - Photo courtesy of Toni Ferreira, Unsplash

IT'S PEOPLE! 

One thing is certain: liveability should put people and local communities at the centre. This view is supported by many different sources. For example, consider the website of Partners for Livable Communities. They too identify people as the greatest resource for community change.

It is also identified by the senior communications adviser for the Congress of New Urbanism, Robert Steuteville, who asserts the importance of walkable and integrated living environments for building social capital and promoting a sense of belonging within a community.

Another supporter emerged in a recent interview with urbanist Richard Florida. His view was that the key element of liveability centers around community building, housing affordability, and access to health & wellness.


TO-FOR-WITH

From our perspective, liveability starts with people. The core philosophy of SafeGrowth is the TO-FOR-WITH principle – we aim to work as much “with” residents in a place rather than delivering programs “to” them or “for” them. It has historical roots in sociology and community development going back to the action research studies of the last century. It was the method employed in our successful SafeGrowth work in New Orleans.

Instead of relying on professional agencies to identify liveability categories, or discussing whether some city or neighbourhood is liveable or not, we need to start paying more attention to people. We must find out what liveability means to them and what they need to improve it. 


Monday, March 25, 2024

Nihilism nixed - hope as a way forward

In crime prevention and community-building, perspective is everything! 

by Gregory Saville

I am struck by the optimism in the cases described in recent blogs – Beth’s story about the Portland TriMet community safety team; my blog on answers to homelessness, especially the miracle underway today in Finland; the numerous examples of successful solidarity in Mateja’s blog about how we have witnessed communities come together to rebuild after natural disasters.

And yet I am also struck by the political blindness people choose to accept when it comes to difficult situations, like high crime neighborhoods, and how hopeless things seem. I was told, before our recent training in Baltimore, that there are unsurmountable obstacles in that city with drugs, shootings, fiscal chaos, and hopelessness (said by people not from Baltimore). 

Yet, on the ground during training, residents and community-builders who live there had a different view. Yes, there were problems, but they dedicated themselves to doing something positive. Currently, they are doing just that. (We return to Baltimore next month to review the results).

It is easy to be distracted by news stories of wickedness around the world

GLOBAL TRENDS

In the middle of news stories about the doom and gloom around us, and the very real terror of nuclear war and environmental collapse, I often remind myself how easy it is to fall into a nihilistic, hell-in-a-handbasket funk. 

Then I read Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupey’s book Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know and dozens of charts, graphs, and data showing inexorable positive directions for dozens of social, economic, and crime trends around the world. Life expectancy, poverty, health, food resources… all getting better, not worse! How can this be so? So many people believe the doom and gloom story! 

Maybe, I thought, these authors got it wrong. Did they get caught in a confirmation bias trap and cherry-picked rosy data and ignored the rest. To answer that, I went on a deep dive into data on global trends to see if they were right. 

Here is what I found:

Life expectancy… going up. Even a downward blip during the global pandemic does not offset the enormous improvements over the decades.


Global access to technology like electricity, even in the poorest countries, has markedly improved.


Child mortality around the world has been plummeting for decades. Bailey and Tupey were right.


For over 500 years, global literacy rates have grown every century and continue to improve today.

And there it was, from one source after another, chart after chart, the list of positive trends goes on and on. 

NIHILISM NIXED

But you'd never know it! You’d never know so many trends are improving if you only watched the miracle of stupidity that is the 24-hour news cycle spitting out, as it does, tragedy after tragedy! With billions around the world, and cell phones in every nook, it is not difficult for news machines to find one “exclusive” horror after another. It may not be the full truth – and it is certainly not investigative journalism – but it sells!

In SafeGrowth, we teach neighborhood dwellers how to do basic field research, how to collect a wide variety of stats, and how to observe carefully. That is how they can get a complete picture before they devise a plan to make things better. You cannot fix something if you drink the noxious elixir of political ideology or popular nihilism. The truth emerges as we dig for ourselves, suspend our biases, and, as Jane Jacobs once described, cultivate the art of seeing clearly

Seeing clearly, beyond the opinions and biases,
means learning how to do research and conduct careful observations

I met a student during the Baltimore training with a family member who, once upon a time, was a famous drug dealer back in the day. Now out of prison, this person turned away from gangs and violence and is now committed to speaking publicly about other ways forward for wayward teens. It is an inspiring story.

There are many challenges facing us both globally and locally. We cannot fix them with doom-and-gloom shades or with rosy glasses. We must retain optimism and hope, but only with clear eyesight. Threats are real, but so too are solutions. Inspiration, as I found out in Baltimore, can come from unlikely places if you learn to see and listen clearly.


Saturday, March 9, 2024

Riding that train with TriMet's Safety Response Team - Part 3


Portland's TriMet mass transit serves over 50 million riders annually in metro Portland. The SRT Team works on this system. Photo Steve Morgan - CC BY-SA 3.0

Beth Dufek is a writer and marketing strategist for clients who are improving the built environment. She runs her own consulting firm in the Pacific Northwest. As a member of the SafeGrowth Network, she teaches SafeGrowth in cities across the U.S. This is Beth’s third blog on responding to people in crisis on the street.


To round out the third of my SafeGrowth blog series, (see also January, 2024  and November, 2023) I am pleased to share a morning spent with one of the many Portland TriMet Safety Response Teams in my final blog on this topic. 


HERE’S HOW WE ROLL

I arrived at TriMet’s Public Safety Office at a reasonable 10am on a partly cloudy, crisp, dry day in February. Having no idea what it’s like to be outside all day anymore, I layered up, packed snacks, and changed my shoes three times. 

I was warmly greeted by a four-person Safety Response Team (SRT) who started their shift at sunrise: 7am. Each person had a unique reason for joining the SRT, ranging from social work and trying a new career to former issues with addiction. Comradery among the team seemed essential. They maintained a sense of humor (they were hilarious), shared stories (especially about food), and watched out for each (something they took seriously). 

Here is how I saw TriMet’s four core principles of the SRT play out in 2 short hours.


SRT on the system. Photo courtesy of Tri-Met


HIGH VISIBILITY SYSTEM PRESENCE 

SRTs work in two shifts, 6 days/week. Each SRT has one team lead and three team members. Each shift has three to five teams on the system. They cover TriMet’s 533 square mile service area within the regional counties of Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas.

The team I rode with estimated they interact with 30 - 50 people per shift, but it depends on the day. Interactions are not limited to people in distress or mitigating behavioral issues. They may help people navigate the system – that they know like the back of their hand – or help tourists get to their destination. They enter each interaction into a Smartsheet app on their phones, which TriMet aggregates to track trends. In November 2023, the SRT interacted with 11,354 people, 8,022 of whom were offered services. 


Rose City Resource list made available by SRT

CONNECTING RIDERS TO RESOURCES

Within minutes of leaving the Public Safety Building, we stopped so the team could ask a person if he got to a place that could help him. In an earlier interaction that day with him, he needed a place that would cash a check without an ID, to get the paperwork to get the ID, and then get to a less temporary place to stay. He was ecstatic that he found a place to stay for a month. To think, I was worried about what shoes to wear.

The SRT carries printed copies of Rose City Resource from the organization Street Roots so they can point people to community-based resources on the spot and tell them which bus or train to take to get there. I am so impressed by their system navigation - I have nearly zero geographical memory; therefore, by the grace of Google Maps go I. 


The SRT backpack and contents for use on the Tri-Met system - Photo courtesy of TriMet


At each stop, the SRT approaches people in pairs for safety to do wellness checks. Granola bars, water, and maps, among other supplies are on offer. They have an affectionate reputation for being “the people with the backpacks with granola bars.” One man at first declined any supplies, but after some kind SRT persistence, he asked for socks (and got them)! 


LOW-LEVEL ISSUES PREVIOUSLY DIRECTED TO 911

At the Pioneer Square transit center, Portland’s “living room” and once THE place to be for entertainment and culture, a person curled up under a moving blanket was asked “Are you ok? You don’t have to interact with me, but can you just let me know you are ok? I have resources for you, but only if you want them.” 


Pioneer Square in Portland. A N/W view showing the west side of the square on a sunny day. Photo courtesy of Steve Morgan, CC Wikipedia


I learned that Pioneer Square is a privately owned public space, and given the current conditions downtown - alcohol and/or drug use, camping, urination, defecation, or indecent exposure, not to mention more overt crimes - they have their own security due to the volume of issues. I was saddened to see the private security simply shoo the person the SRT offered resources to away … from the living room. 

I observed that people were unsure how to interact with the quite official-looking team. They assured me they were used to it. I expressed my concern that people think the SRT initiated the security guards’ action. They said it happens all the time, so they stay in their resource-offering lane and feel good about the help they provide. 


SOME HUMANS HELPED, INCLUDING ME

I started this series by questioning how humans can help other humans. Spending time with SRT members in the classroom and on the train has helped this human believe in Portland’s resilience. One SRT member told me they had more conservative ideas about how to deal with the homelessness crisis before joining the SRT, but after helping people on TriMet’s system in dire circumstances due to drug addiction or mental illness, they have more empathy and want to be a part of the solution. 

It can be tempting to draw conclusions and reinforce biases about the fentanyl crisis, homelessness, and social unrest in order to join a conversation fueled by sensationalized local news and social media. These issues demand serious attention, but I want to end with a thought-provoking post by Alice McFlurry at Beige.Party

Let’s normalize saying, “I don’t know enough about the topic to be able to comment.” 

For me, it is a reminder to take the time to ask the questions before forming the hypothesis.


Monday, February 26, 2024

CPTED Conference in Palm Springs - Practical solutions vs public safety theater

The CPTED Conference in Palm Springs is sponsored by 
CPTED/PCAM Canada and CPTED USA, May 7-8, 2024

by Gregory Saville

Some time ago we posted various blogs on the pros and cons of security technology as a solution to crime. Some technologies, we concluded from the evidence, provide an excellent addition to a safe environment as long as they are well-understood by the community and targeted strategically. The K-5 security robot patrolling late-night underground parking might be one example.

But other technologies promise more than they provide. Over a year ago, Mateja wrote a blog on the acoustic gun detection system “Shotspotter” as one example of a technology that had mixed results. Mateja’s blog on the topic wrote that studies “conclude that [acoustic security technology] AGDT may actually be ineffective and inaccurate and can thus waste police resources” 

Now the popular media (and more importantly, city decision-makers) have finally taken up our argument and tell an alarming story. The CNN news stream just reported that critics are sounding the alarm that the ShotSpotter gunfire detection system is ineffective


PUBLIC SAFETY THEATER? 

Despite over a hundred cities employing the technology (one wonders whether those cities used any form of criminological due diligence before their purchase?), it turns out cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and Portland have rejected this security technology. These are cities that direly need some respite from street crime. The article asks whether such technologies are ‘public safety theatre’

The reality is that in places like Houston, that use the technology, out of over 4,000 ShotSpotter alerts, only about 200 turned into arrests. Then again, 200 arrests following a gunfire detection alert isn't unimportant. Is the price tag worth that amount?  That’s a good question and a simple answer might be – yes! Yet, if shots occur in a neighborhood with decent design and friendly community relationships, maybe residents will call the police on their own and report the details. That might just as easily result in an arrest. 


USA/CANADA JOINT CONFERENCE

The webcast on community-building through 2nd Generation CPTED


I recently joined some other CPTED experts in describing an alternative to the tech security solution. We discussed a human-centered approach to safety and security called 2nd Generation CPTED. During the webcast, we showed examples where residents and other community members had a direct, and powerful, role in improving their own safety. We showed examples from schools in Oregon, skate parks in Saskatoon, Texas, and British Columbia, and city planning tactics in Florida and New Orleans. 

This CPTED USA/CPTED-PCAM Canada webcast precedes the 2024 joint conference in Palm Springs, California. To see the latest in technology, how to marry sensible technology with community empowerment, and case studies of advanced examples of crime prevention, register for the May 7-8 conference here.

See you there.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Is This The World We Created? Part 2


From 30,000 feet, the city hides many blemishes. On the ground, not so much.

by Gregory Saville

In my last blog Is This The World We Created? I discussed the growing problem of street homelessness in cities around the world. I presented facts and listed some responses. Most of those responses use a continuum of care in which people who are homeless must climb a staircase of supports with housing at the top as the final step.

Perhaps that is wrong? Maybe it should be the other way around in which care follows housing as in the Housing First program?


CRIME = HOMELESSNESS?

While there is not necessarily a connection between homelessness and crime, the public makes the crime/homelessness connection. Take for example recent media comments by a British Columbia citizen group Save Our Streets:

“Drug addictions and drug trade, mental health challenges, law enforcement, judicial reform, homelessness, are all factors…while governments have a long history of announcing policies and programs meant to respond to these issues, the desired results have not been realized.”

So in the mind of the public it seems one issue relates to another. Further, there is growing discontent that current government programs are ineffective at solving the problem, a view supported by some of the research I discussed in the last blog. What can be done?


FINLAND


In Canada and the U.S., we have homeless rates of .8 and 1.7 per thousand people respectively. It’s much worse in other European countries. 

What would it be like if we could reduce that to 0.1 of the total population? In other words, in the U.S. over 600,000 people live without shelter or food each night. If we cut that to 0.1 we could virtually eliminate most of the homelessness in our cities. 

Why 0.1? Because it has already been done in Finland.

The video above explains how the country of Finland used a modified and expanded version of the Homes First program to accomplish precisely this result. Finland’s success is not based on a staircase, but rather by starting with housing and then adding intensive and sustained supports later.


WALLS MUST FALL

Of course, this is not a simple proposition and there are many walls in the way. 

First, the Finnish response is not simply to house people but rather to provide intensive, and sustained, services immediately upon housing people. When the city of Medicine Hat, Canada tried the Housing First method they had initial success. Sadly, they did not follow up with the intensive and sustained servicing that was available in Finland. Thus, five months after housing people, the problems and homeless rates returned.

Then there is the city of Wheat Ridge, Colorado. They shut down homes for the homeless in motels due to ongoing crime concerns, thereby forcing those residents back onto the street.



Clearly, the Finns understood the importance of intensive and sustained in-home support (in-house security, substance abuse counselling, mental health services, financial support, etc). They understood what would happen without that support.


HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?

Finally, there is the issue of cost. This is not a trivial obstacle. However, as Charles Marohn reveals in his book Strong Towns, there is already tremendous wasteful municipal spending on zero rate-of-return municipal projects. 

I made this point 15 years ago in my blog Give me a $1,184 inch…and I’ll make me a mile. In that blog, I unpacked a $2.67 billion highway connector project in Houston that cost $75 million per mile, or $1,184 per inch (in a city that already had between 14,000 to 30,000 homeless people). 

Just imagine... giving up a single mile of that roadway connector could create over $75 million for homes. And since former SafeGrowth blogger Tod Schneider tells us they have developed Conestoga Huts for homeless people that cost $1,500 each, that means a single mile of Houston’s connector could free up over 50,000 homes, far more than enough to house every single homeless person in Houston. 

This back-of-envelope (and admittedly simple) calculation ignores many other more sophisticated ways to make enhanced Housing First a reality. It also ignores other walls, like figuring out where to locate those small homes without triggering the ire of the Not-In-My-Backyard crowd (a crowd that, incidentally, is already being encroached on by uncontrolled tent cities and unsanitary encampments).

And while we are making those calculations, let’s remember how living without a home or food can turn into a horror show, as this blog has documented in the past when some Denver residents without homes were attacked by flash-bomb grenades


Photos of injuries sustained by Molly during a flash-bang grenade attack - a crime still unsolved

Surely we can create a better world for those most in need.


Sunday, January 21, 2024

"Is This The World We Created" - Homelessness in 2024

 

City streets and laneways are cold, dangerous, and lonely places to live

by Gregory Saville

I recently chastised a colleague for using uncouth and demeaning terms to describe the unhoused. His view is that homelessness is a selfish and personal choice to avoid responsibility. His views are shared by many and perhaps that is not surprising considering the maze people must thread along public sidewalks or parks filled with used needles, unhygienic conditions, vandalism, unruly behavior and, sometimes, aggressive threats. No one wants to feel unsafe walking on the street; no one wants their property stolen or their loved ones threatened.

I understand the frustration. I understand it even though people who are unhoused are at a much higher risk of violence from each other, than passers-by are at risk from homeless people

I understand it because we have heard the same story in neighborhoods everywhere we deliver SafeGrowth, from Vancouver, BC, and Portland, Oregon, to northern Canada and cities across California. The story is the same; increasing numbers of the unhoused, out-of-control toxic street drugs, and mental illness.


Waiting for a Prince George, BC safe injection site to open in the morning


For decades, I have had personal and professional experience with those living on the street. In all that time, I have yet to find a single person who willingly gave up a roof over their head and food in their belly and instead chose a difficult life on the street, being cold at night, suffering a high risk of violence, and having little food. 

With sanitary, safe, and sheltered choices, every one of those people I have known or have spoken to, chooses that option over the street. The obstacles they face have more do to with addiction, mental illness, or debilitating poverty.

And yet ignorant views arise and indifference abounds. As the rock band Queen sang at the 1985 Live Aid concert, we must ask: "Is This The World We Created?"  


Moccasin Flats homeless tent city in Prince George, BC


An attempt to set up a community garden for unhoused people in Prince George, BC


Homelessness emerges from a toxic formula of poverty, unaffordable housing, drug abuse, and mental illness. Of those, the Opioid Crisis triggers the greatest harm. Thousands die on the streets each year from Opioids, particularly fentanyl. 

Statistica reports that in the U.S. fentanyl and related drug overdoses on the street resulted in 70,000 dead in 2021 alone (up from 2,600 in 2011). Clearly, while homelessness has been with us for ages, street drug overdoses pose a major public health catastrophe. 


RESPONSES

There is no shortage of responses to homelessness, including substance abuse tactics. In this blog we have been investigating the problem, and reporting on mitigation methods, for over 15 years. We have written dozens of posts on the topic of homelessness. 

Last summer I wrote about a harm reduction safe injection program in Prince George, British Columbia. That community continues to struggle with ineffective responses. In Beth Dufek’s last blog, she wrote about our SafeGrowth training of another response case - the Portland’s TriMet Safety Response team on the Portland transportation system

Here are others:

  • 2021 – Tod Schneider blogged about community-supported shelters in Oregon
  • 2020 – SafeGrowth advocate Jon Munn wrote about homelessness in Victoria, BC’s Topaz Park during COVID
  • 2019 – I blogged on inaccurate media reporting of Seattle’s homeless problem compared to Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • 2018 – A blog on the words and poetry of homeless people in Toronto
  • 2017 – Reducing homelessness in Australia Part 1 and Part 2
  • 2010 – Colorado, Springs, Colorado’s police department response to homelessness 

Most of those blogs emerged from our SafeGrowth work on homelessness, livability, and crime prevention over the past few decades. We also co-wrote the International CPTED Association’s White Paper on homelessness

All these years later, the problem worsens!


Almost invisible, almost forgotten, a woman sleeps under an overpass


AROUND THE GLOBE

Global homeless rates are pretty horrible.

Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, and Honduras, all have some of the worst homeless rates in the world. In Nigeria, Egypt, and DR Congo alone, there are more homeless people than the entire population of California (over 40 million). 

In the America’s, the majority of homeless people live in the U.S. (580,000) and Mexico (456,000). But raw numbers tell us only part of the larger picture. We need to calculate rates per population to compare apples to apples. When we do that, even with the shoddy state of homelessness statistics, the picture is bleak. 

Most governments use “point-in-time” counts of homeless people and they have different categories for shelter occupants, temporary and chronic homeless, and so forth. The numbers don’t always line up. Also, the data are notoriously vulnerable to politics. Some countries, such as China and Japan, offer up very suspect data that cannot be verified and are therefore useless.


Homeless encampment in Bridgetown, Barbados


In spite of all these limitations, we can piece together a rough image based on the World Population Review, and various data sources like Canada’s point-in-time counts (Canada’s, in particular, is probably under-reported).  

Here is the ugly picture from street homeless statistics 2022-2023, with the highest rates of homelessness to the lowest for selected countries.



It might be obvious that a very poor country like Guatemala has such a high homeless rate, but how is it that wealthy countries like the UK, France, and Australia are doing so poorly? Perhaps Australia’s warmer weather inflates their point-of-time counts? 

Australia’s news outlets report that the rates are worsening every year and 3 states suffer the worst – Queensland, Western Australia, and New South Wales. According to the Guardian newspaper, in Australia last year “demand for homelessness services rose 7.5% across Australia amid soaring rents and record low vacancy rates.”


Hostile architecture to deter the unhoused from sitting in front of
a Marylin Monroe statue in Palm Springs, California


NOTHING TO BRAG ABOUT

What of the UK and France? 

We hear much about European illegal immigration inflating homeless numbers, but if that is true, why is Germany’s rate so much lower? In the U.S., the political classes blame illegal immigration for homelessness increases. Yet, those arguments fall apart when you compare homeless rates with those of some of Europe’s largest countries.

Is illegal immigration really so much worse in those European countries? Is the correlation between illegal immigration and homelessness just nonsense? 

Canada might look good from a global perspective, but 35,000 homeless people on the street each night is nothing to brag about. In addition, we know of the link between homelessness and drug overdoses, and Canada lost over 8,000 people last year to street opioid overdoses. Over the past 7 years, according to one source, the toll is over 40,000 dead - each one of them is a son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father, or grandparent. Each one, to at least somebody, is a friend, now gone.

And it is getting worse.

Next blog – What can be done? Does anything work?


Sunday, January 14, 2024

Who's on call in Portland? TriMet's Safety Response Team - Part 2

Portland, Oregon. Photo by Adam Blank on Unsplash

Beth Dufek is a writer and marketing strategist for clients who are improving the built environment. She runs her own consulting firm in the Pacific Northwest. Previously she worked with the LISC non-profit organization, facilitated SafeGrowth projects in Milwaukee, and later worked with neighborhood groups in Seattle, Washington. She was named one of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 for her commitment to civic engagement and her ability to build trust in communities. As a member of the SafeGrowth Network, she teaches SafeGrowth in cities across the U.S. This is Beth’s second blog on responding to people in crisis on the street.


Over the past few years, we have provided SafeGrowth training with TriMet – the bus, light rail, and commuter rail service provider of Portland, Oregon. In my previous Part 1 blog, I promised to write about the Tri-Met Safety Response Team (SRT). I continue to be impressed with their much-needed rider outreach in Portland, the place I now call home.


TriMet's SRT group - January 2023 
Photo courtesy of TriMet


THE COMMUNITY SAFETY PUZZLE 

TriMet’s Board approved $1.8M in November 2020 for the Reimagine Public Safety initiative to reshape safety and security by taking a “community engagement first” approach. That was right around the time TriMet reached out to Greg Saville and SafeGrowth for help. In November 2021 twenty TriMet safety, security, and maintenance staff participated in the agency’s first SafeGrowth training. Tom Hunt, Safety Response Manager for TriMet, was a participant. 

Tom has been in law enforcement and community safety in the area for over 30 years. He told me Portland’s opioid crisis has been around for decades. It was manageable (if that is even possible) when smaller mental health crisis support sites were scattered throughout the city. In the mid-2000s, due to a variety of factors (mostly financial, maybe political), the healthcare system consolidated by closing satellite crisis and recovery centers, making it more difficult for people to get help. 

It was around that time TriMet started to experience an increase in “non-destination” riders, those who use the transit system - vehicles and transit stops - not so much for transportation, but for shelter and yes, to buy, sell, and take illegal substances. It got worse during the COVID pandemic.


SRT patrolling the transit system, January 2023
Photo courtesy of TriMet

PIECES OF THE PUZZLE

Reimagine Public Safety launched the Safety Response pilot program by training seven SRT members who started riding the system in September 2021 to reach riders in need or distress. It became a permanent TriMet Safety & Security program in July 2023. 

The SRT works alongside the agency’s dedicated security team to respond to calls and to build relationships with frequent riders. 

At the time of this post, the SRT has 57 members. They find and support riders and community members who are experiencing homelessness, mental health crises, and drug and alcohol addiction. By engaging with riders, they can discourage inappropriate and illegal behavior and provide referrals for housing and support services. 


FINDING THE MISSING PIECES

Many people in their cars may take a quick glance at a bus at a stoplight and see a few people looking at their phones or riders carrying an unusual amount of stuff, and some may be sleeping. That may be all you see, but it’s different for the SRT.

The SRT members see much of what media outlets push out about Portland: open-air drug markets and drug use, scores of unhoused people, and other concerns. I’m not denying this is present but, in my experience, Portland also has a spirit of perseverance. 

In our SafeGrowth class, one SRT participant let us know, “SRT members have had hands on a dead body when we were sadly unsuccessful in saving their life after an overdose.” It still gives me chills. And yet, I frequently see SRT members engaging with riders who others might ignore. I’ve become a bit of a fan girl, pointing out SRT members to friends with excitement. They are compassionate and genuinely proud of their work.

I’m reminded of a new local campaign: Portland is what we make it. TriMet makes Portland resilient.


PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER

It’s no wonder TriMet has expanded the program, won awards, and is respected among its peers.

According to Tom, TriMet co-founded the National Transit and Vulnerable Population Working Group, a national group of transit agencies that meet monthly to share information and develop best practices. Austin, San Francisco, Denver, and Los Angeles transit agency staff are among its members. Aaron Gordon wrote in Vice that public transit has become the last safety net in America.


Denver's Union Station platform
Photo by Francisco B on Unsplash


SRT was also featured in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration Newsletter for “developing community-based programs that supplement transit security officers and enhance the rider experience.”  

Additionally, TriMet won an APTA 2023 Rail Safety, Security, and Emergency Management Gold Award for “reimagining their security approach and moving to multifaceted, multi-tiered security teams and a more strategic approach.”


THE NEXT PIECE

But wait, there’s more. I have been invited to ride with the SRT. 

Stay tuned!