Breaking News
More () »

Responding to Portland’s homeless crisis through the eyes of a Portland police sergeant

KGW rode along with Portland Police Sgt. Matt Jacobsen, the Central Precinct Neighborhood Response Team leader. He's also the point of contact for homeless issues.

PORTLAND, Ore. — KGW reporter Blair Best and photojournalist Chad DeHart went on a ride-along with a Portland Police Bureau sergeant in August to get an inside look at the city's response to the homelessness crisis

It’s 9 o’clock on a Monday morning when we step inside the police cruiser. My partner on this assignment, KGW photojournalist Chad DeHart, loaded our camera gear into the backseat and set up Go Pro cameras on the windshield. He took the back while I sat shotgun.

After signing a Portland Police Bureau waiver, Sgt. Matt Jacobsen took a sip of iced coffee and left the station heading north. I couldn't help but notice how his list of calls got longer by the second. 

“I get all sorts of stuff. Property crimes, concerning behavior, camps, car camping, abandoned vehicles, drug sales. You name it, we intake it,” he said. 

Jacobsen leads the PPB's Central Precinct Neighborhood Response Team. They cover 41 square miles in the city and respond to everything from community safety issues to working investigations. They’re also a point of contact for homelessness, one of Portland’s most pressing issues. 

RELATED: ‘I was dying’: 26-year-old woman describes being homeless and addicted to drugs before finally getting treatment

When groups who work with the homeless community need help, they often call the response team. Jacobsen also responds to calls directly from residents and local business owners.

For the past five years, he’s worked on the front lines of this crisis, something critics are skeptical of, especially when it comes to responding to people with mental illnesses. This controversy dates back to 2012 when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the city of Portland claiming the police bureau was using excessive force too often, especially with those who were mentally ill. The department is currently operating under the rules of a settlement that addresses police use of force. As for the critics who feel police shouldn’t be working with homeless individuals, Jacobsen sees it differently.

“We hear a lot about how the police shouldn’t engage in our homeless population because of mental health nexus or whatever it is, and I think sometimes those are short-sighted,” he explained as we crossed the Hawthorne Bridge. “What we do is so relationship based with our folks outside that we may be the only cop that they feel comfortable reporting something to.”

Our first stop of the day was Laurelhurst Park, a notorious spot for homeless camps. 

“After checking on you last week I just wanted to come by and see if you’re doing alright,” said Jacobsen as he got out of the cruiser and talked with a homeless man he knew by name. “Take care of yourself. See you later,” he said after handing him two bottles of water. “It’s all about demeanor,” he explained while getting back into the cruiser. “I go up, stick my hand out and be like ‘Hey, what’s up I’m Matt.'”

RELATED: Neighbors living near Laurelhurst Park turn to attorney for help clearing homeless camp

A daily focus for him is getting people off the streets, even if it doesn’t always work.

“There is a very good segment of the population that have no interest in going into emergency shelter," he said. 

Despite this barrier, the outreach by Jacobsen and his team has had some success. 

From April to June of this year, they’ve moved 42 people off the streets and into shelter. This was through focused work in Old Town. They estimate they place one to five people in emergency shelter each week, and they know that’s just a small fraction of the number of people on the streets who need shelter. Many of those people are also dealing with another problem: substance abuse. We got a firsthand look at how that’s handled by police when Jacobsen caught a woman smoking fentanyl in Old Town on Northwest 5th and Couch.

An officer handcuffed her while she cried out to Jacobsen, claiming the drugs weren’t hers. She told him she gets anxiety, so Jacobsen calmed her down by guiding her through a breathing exercise. She was only handcuffed for about five minutes and cited for three warrants and possession of a controlled substance. Being cited for possession results in a fine of up to $100.

“I’m glad I’m going to be set free. I’m not that bad of a person,” she said to us after the handcuffs were off.

She’s told me she's 28 years old and has been living on the streets for two years.

“I wasn’t expecting to get caught,” she said. “I’m fine now. I just want to do better.”

RELATED: 'You've got to assume it has fentanyl in it': Fentanyl crisis claiming lives in Oregon and Washington

Down the street we met a man smoking fentanyl off a scrap of tin foil.

“I took a hit off of this one because I think it's fentanyl based on the taste,” he said as he sat crossed legged on the corner of 6th and Davis.

He wasn’t cited for drug possession because Jacobsen didn’t have backup this time.  

“You just light it from the bottom. It’s called freebasing,” the man explained. He then showed us a self-portrait he had just finished drawing.

“This is me later in life, being in a wheelchair because I don’t ever get the help I need, so I’m stuck with a foil."

For his own safety, Jacobsen often only approaches people using drugs when there is available backup, which varies given the severe staffing shortage facing the department. 

Overall, the bureau has reached a historic low of 774 sworn officers as of August 2022., and 101 of them work in Central Precinct. The precinct needs 113 to be considered fully staffed. On this day, there were 15 officers patrolling Central Precinct and seven of them were on overtime. This is due in part to a budget cut they took in 2020 amid calls to defund police. They laid off seven people whose role was to vet new job applicants. Since then, they’ve been building the department back up, but it’s not a quick fix. 

Jacobsen moves forward despite these challenges. Down the block we found another group using drugs. Jacobsen yells out to them through the passenger window but ultimately keeps driving. I asked him why he didn’t stop to give them citation too. 

“Honestly, I don’t have the time or the ability to address that,” he said. “We’re off to do something else. I couldn’t make it three blocks without having to stop every block to address somebody using drugs on the sidewalk at this point.”

It’s 2 o’clock when we pull up to a homeless camp on Southeast Division and 4th. This time he has backup, and the officers find drugs on one man along with large pellet guns.

“So we’re going to nic test it,” Jacobsen said while laying out the drugs on the hood of a police cruiser. “The subject was arrested on a warrant and has a pretty large chunk of what appears to be methamphetamine in his pocket and what looks to be some black tar heroin.”

“Everyone hates us and treats us like s--- and then we treat each other like s---,” said Joseph Spry, who watched as Jacobsen arrested his friend.

He’s been living on the streets for 10 years and described it as tiring and overwhelming. 

“The majority of folks probably yearn in their core for something more, a little bit better,” said Jacobsen.

But given the state of Portland’s streets, that “something better” won’t come overnight.

“This is going to be a very slow, lengthy process,” Jacobsen said as he got back into the cruiser. “But it’s the best job in the world.”

Before You Leave, Check This Out