WCSO and homeless population in Washington County

We asked James M. Coley, Lieutenant – Patrol Division, Washington County Sheriff’s Office to help us understand how the Sheriff’s Office responds to homeless folks in the county, and what residents should do if they encounter campers.

What should residents do if they see or encounter people camping on public or private property?

If they are on public land, and not on private property, and are not doing anything illegal, violent, or causing environmental hazards or safety concerns, then you can contact the County’s Homeless Camp Management Program and report the location of the encampment online.

Anyone with concerns about potential criminal activity or any suspicious behaviors is encouraged to contact the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (or local law enforcement agency) by calling non-emergency dispatch at 503-629-0111. 

To learn about forming a Neighborhood Watch Program within unincorporated Washington county, call 503-846-5578. 

For an immediate threat to life or property, please dial 9-1-1 for an emergency response.

Pacific Office Automation

For more information, review this handout created by the many county offices involved in the houseless response efforts during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

What about people living in a vehicle parked on public streets or private property?

If a person is camping on private property without permission, this could be considered trespassing. The landowner can call non-emergency to report this at 503-629-0111. 

Camping on public streets, shoulders, and right-of-way is also often not allowed and should be reported. If you are unsure, report to non-emergency 503-629-0111 and a deputy will clarify and provide alternatives and support services for those living in the vehicle.

Fortunately, here in Washington County, we also have several Safe Park options. These are undisclosed parking lots where houseless people can safely park their vehicles with sanitation services onsite. To help someone in need gain access to available services, please contact the County’s coordinated entry system, Community Connect, at 503-640-3263 or visit 

What is legal in terms of people living or staying outside? Is it ever legal to camp or live in a vehicle?

PMG photo: Jaime Valdez • Bruce Lazott, who has been chronically homelss for four years, was one of the first people to come to Safe Sleep village when it opened in August 2020
PMG photo: Jaime Valdez • Bruce Lazott, who has been chronically homelss for four years, was one of the first people to come to Safe Sleep village when it opened in August 2020

In an effort to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on homeless encampments, Washington County has temporarily suspended enforcement of its camping ordinance during the Pandemic. Per the CDC, “if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Other considerations regarding camping on public property: Washington County continues to monitor efforts by the Oregon Legislature as they consider new laws in light of the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals Court case Martin v. Boise that prohibits enforcement action against homeless individuals sleeping outside because they have no other place to go.

The County is moving forward with plans to open new shelter facilities, creating opportunities for people currently living in encampments to move indoors and connect with supportive services (see link above for more information).

It is not illegal to live in your vehicle, but there are places it is illegal to park. As shared above, there are Safe Park locations available in Washington County, Safe Sleep Village and Safe Sleep RV Program.

How do WCSO deputies work with people found in the above situations? It seems like there are many types of homeless: those who simply had a run of bad luck (or bad decisions) and want to get back into housing; those who have mental illness and just can’t cope with life; anti-social folks who don’t want to conform to normal society… Do you have ways to determine what sort of response works best with the different populations?

Deputies hope to provide help and support to those experiencing houselessness, and connect an individual with services if they are receptive to support. 

Every situation is as unique as the individual. Safety is the goal for every encounter. Safety for the individual, the community, and those helping to respond, be it law enforcement, fire, medical, homeless outreach, environmental services, or a mental health first responder. WCSO deputies are trained in de-escalation techniques and skilled at making the general assessments needed to gain additional support from other county groups if necessary, such as homeless outreach teams, domestic violence support services, or even our Mental Health Response Team (MHRT). 

Are there any good resources to help people in these situations?

To help someone in need get access to available services, please contact the County’s coordinated entry system, Community Connect, at 503-640-3263 or visit their webpage.

Or see the resource list below.

  • Packet from Washington County’s multiple offices https://www.co.washington.or.us/Housing/EndHomelessness/upload/Homeless-Response_Info-packet-Final-2.pdf. 
  • Expanded Family Promise shelters to provide hotel-based sheltering, 
  • Hotel voucher system for physically and medically fragile people, 
  • Temporary Safe Sleep Village and Safe Sleep RV Program, 
  • Outreach and support for community members living on the street and in encampments which includes resource referrals, access to portable toilets, handwashing stations and hygiene supplies
  • Approximately 200 winter shelter beds.

Are there different responses if it’s a family as opposed to a single person?

When law enforcement responds to check on an encampment of a houseless person or persons, the general response is always the same, to help connect them with the appropriate support services and housing. If there is evidence of illegal activity, we address each situation according to its unique circumstances. 

If a resident knows of homeless campers who don’t seem to be causing a problem (trash, fire danger, loud or obnoxious behavior etc) should they do anything or just leave them alone?

If there are no laws broken or there aren’t any environmental concerns, reporting the encampment to Houseless Outreach or non-emergency dispatch is acceptable to inform and connect campers to available services. Use the Homeless Camp Management Program website to report the location of an encampment online.

Are there places in the Cedar Mill area that residents should avoid because of homeless camps?

Not at this current time but reporting the location of campers will help us share this information in the future. Use the Homeless Camp Management Program website to report the location of an encampment online

In your observation, are the homeless around here from the area or is there an influx of people either from Portland or elsewhere?

This is a difficult question to answer as many individuals experiencing homelessness may not be forthcoming with this information until trust is established. Often, the answer given is personal and subjective and may match more of what they feel is their recent home vs. where they may physically have last resided. 

Anything else you want us to know about?

Working together as a community and as a County, we can figure out the best solutions to these complex issues. Follow the County’s Efforts to End Homelessness.