Problem: Neighborhoods were being “held hostage” as houses in foreclosure were taken over by drug addicts. The homes were being trashed and fines were ignored.
Solution: Neighbors, the sheriff’s office, human services and the district attorney’s office all teamed together to break a vicious cycle, take back their neighborhoods and get help for the addicts.
After a new family moved into their dream home in a neighborhood in Clackamas County, Oregon, they began to notice strange goings-on next door. Loud arguments came from inside the house late at night, rats scurried under the fence and people came and went at all hours of the day and night.
“I got a phone call from a guy named Todd — very nice man, young family,” said Officer Sara McClurg of the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office. “They had just moved into the house next door. He thought that he and his wife had scored and gotten a really great deal on this wonderful little split level ’60s family house with a nice big yard for his children.”
The man told McClurg that the day after they moved in, he went into his backyard onto the deck. “He noticed all these sketchy people in the backyard next door, started getting a little bit alarmed, noticed rats running under the fence, a stench coming from the house,” McClurg said. “He started talking to the neighbors and they said ‘Oh my God, you bought that house? We’re so sorry.’”
The home had belonged to a resident who passed away and afterward, his 50-something year-old son decided to live in the family home, even though he didn’t have a job to pay for the mortgage or utilities, McClurg noted. He got the word out to drug addicts that they could stay at the house in exchange for cash so he could keep the utilities on.
By the time the new family moved in next door in the spring of 2015, the home was down to one toilet for 20 people who were usually high on meth or heroin, and the backyard was filled with trash, she said.
The family that had moved in next door “couldn’t let their children play in the front yard because of the comings and goings,” McClurg said. “It was abhorrent. It was very, very severe. So, we were routinely responding to complaints, usually making arrests, some we didn’t catch up to because they were jumping over the back fence. And the poor neighbors … a couple of times dangerous armed criminals were at the house, so twice, the sheriff’s office had to get SWAT teams to respond. All we could do was arrest people over and over and over again.”
The house became the poster child for a problem that was repeated in other neighborhoods in the county. After the recession, “we had a glut of empty houses out there somewhere in the foreclosure process…and at the same time our homeless population was escalating,” McClurg said.
“And a lot of these homes were being basically identified by homeless individuals as a potential residence, and so they were moving themselves in and taking over these sites, really with nobody who was resisting their efforts. Some of these folks were just really down on their luck…but I would say for the majority there was an element of alcohol or substance abuse.”
The spring of 2015 was also a time that the sheriff’s department “had come to an impasse” and was ready to try anything to break the cycle of arrests and non-compliance by the occupants of these problem homes.
That’s when a team from the sheriff’s office, along with support from the county commissioners, district attorney’s office and county human services, decided to take a look at how they might team together and use the Clackamas County Nuisance Ordinance, McClurg said. The teamwork evolved into what they now call the “Neighborhood Livability Project.”
The county’s first attempt in using the nuisance ordinance was to shut down the problem drug den where the 50-something-year-old son was living with drug addicts. The county scheduled a “kick out” at the home, McClurg said. “That’s when 10 to 12 squad cars show up to let them know ‘This is a do or die, you have to leave.”
When police arrived at the home June 5, 2015, 11 people were still holed up inside. McClurg said it was evident most of them were on drugs. “They had 20 minutes to collect any belongings and vacate the premises.” Once they were gone, officers boarded up the house from the inside, posted “No Trespassing” signs on the home and warned the addicts that if they were caught returning they would be arrested.
The next piece of the puzzle for the county was bringing in human services and behavioral specialists to help the addicted, McClurg said, which is part of the equation the county has perfected since the start of the program. Anytime there is a “kick out” done, human service representatives are now also there to let anyone know there are options for treatment. If they are not ready to go that day, and most are not, she noted, they are given brochures and business cards so they can follow up later, which several have done.
“Like any county, that’s where we’re trying to take it,” McClurg said. “If we can get them into treatment, that’s a save.”
And what happened to the house? The county took possession of the home and put it up for auction. The home was purchased for under $200,000 by an attorney who does remodeling on the side. In addition to taking the house down to the studs, trash had to be hauled away, exterminators had to be called in and two trashed-out recreational vehicles had to be towed out. After about nine months of rebuilding, the new home was sold for about $450,000.
“So that’s a really great success story,” McClurg said. She and others on the team took a township official by the house last month because he wants to bring the program to his community. “We showed him some of the houses we’ve been dealing with. And the new homeowners were outside doing yard work. And we saw kids’ toys in people’s front yards, which we didn’t see before.”
The statistics also tell the story: Since the county began its Neighborhood Livability Project in 2015, 94 homes have been “closed” or the problem was abated. Twelve homes are under review, where drug and other activity has calmed down but police are still vigilant, McClurg said. Thirteen homes are deemed “active,” with still more work to do and just one new home has been added. “The new ones are declining,” she said. “We’re hitting the worst and it’s getting resolved.”
The program costs are minimal, with most of the costs needed for overtime pay for several sheriff’s deputies, who at most worked up to 20 hours of overtime per week as the program was ramping up, which was OK’d by the sheriff, McClurg said. They received donations of dumpsters and plywood from local companies, to board up homes.
McClurg said she would advise other counties with a similar problem to work with other agencies, “see if you can have a sit down” and “identify your three top problem addresses.”
“Work on those, learn from your mistakes and call us if you need some advice,” she said. “We’ve pretty much seen it all.”
In her 12 years in the sheriff’s department, McClurg said the Neighborhood Livability Project is the most rewarding program she’s ever worked on. “We made a difference in a community, which is what we’re supposed to do, right? We can see the results, we can point to something and say ‘We helped do that.’”