Everyday Heroes: Oregon City homeless liaison Officer Mike Day is making a difference
OREGON CITY, Ore. —
The homeless crisis in Portland has been well-documented, front-page news for years -- but it’s not an issue that’s strictly in the big city.
When Clackamas County conducted a recent survey and census of homeless people, it found thousands were experiencing homelessness, and Oregon City had the largest population of homeless people of any city in the county.
Oregon City’s Commission decided to do something constructive about it.
“We know we’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem,” says Officer Mike Day, the Oregon City Police Department’s new homeless liaison, “and to address community concerns and livability issues, this position was created, and I started in July of this year.”
Officer Day spends every day contacting homeless people, business owners, and community members who are impacted by homelessness, or who can help.
“No person’s story is the same, no person’s circumstance is the same,” says Officer Day. “You have to figure out what’s unique to them and what’s keeping them from getting inside, and try to work toward that.”
Since getting the job in July, Day spends every day contacting homeless people at camps, under bridges, on public and private property, to offer help. And his success stories are adding up.
Take Matthew Smith’s story, for example.
Smith had been on the street for 15 years when Day encountered him at Clackamette Park in September. Day thought Smith might qualify for housing assistance. He did.
It took a lot of calls and meetings, but today, Smith is in permanent housing.
“Think about Matthew,” says Day. “He’d been homeless for a decade-and-a-half. And working with him for about a month, he’s no longer homeless. How can something like that, where there’s seemingly a solution there, go on for so long?”
Smith needed someone to work with him, and not simply ticket him for illegally camping.
“It’s just a matter of putting in the time, knowing what’s out there, and getting that person in connection with what’s out there,” he says.
Day shares his little victories on a special part of the Oregon City Police Department’s web page. He’s helped a homeless woman get an Oregon Trail Food assistance card. A man he met under a bridge is now in a 12-month residential alcohol treatment program.
For Benjamin Wilson, all it really took was a couple of phone calls.
Wilson had been living on the streets. Day talked to him, and the ball was rolling.
“I didn’t do a lot in that circumstance aside from I talked to Ben, I learned a little bit about him. I called his dad, and his dad was willing to help financially. By literally the next day, he had found a place, and he was inside,” says Day. “I can’t take credit for that, that’s just me doing my job, and family helping family, but still, it’s cool to be a part of.”
One thing that might make Day the ideal officer for his new position is his personal experience.
Day grew up in Oregon City with his sister and their single mom. For a time, they had no home of their own, and had to share an apartment with a family friend. He had a roof over his head, but still fit the official HUD definition of “homeless."
“So I know what the struggle is like,” says Day, who used to take missions to Mexico as a youth to help orphans, and build and repair homes. “I’ve always had a passion to try and help people in any way I can to try to get them out of a rough situation.”
Day also says he uses his younger sister as inspiration. She’s a social worker involved with homeless outreach in the Portland area.
“I think her passion kind of motivated me to do a little more,” he says, smiling. “She’s my little sister, but I look up to her in that aspect.”
Day says he’s learned in a short time to aim big, but still embrace the small victories.
“Not just the big success stories,” he says. "Obviously, those are cool. If someone gets indoors, that’s spectacular. But it’s also the small ones,” he says.
Things like getting a vital document for someone, so they can get a job or housing. Or helping someone get their ID renewed, or getting someone a bus ticket.
“Those smaller successes, those are what keeps me going,” says Day. “I knew getting into this I wasn’t going to end homelessness overnight. So I told myself, ‘Measure the small successes,’ just to sort of stay in it.”
His impact is being felt citywide. Downtown businesses have fewer complaints about human waste after Day enlisted community help for two portable toilets downtown. Trent Clinkscales, owner of Clinkscales Portable Toilets and Septic Service, donated one. The city bought the other. Arta Potties wrapped the toilets with a scenic vinyl wrap, to make them more a part of the downtown scene.
“There’s a lot of people in the community who want to help,” says Day, “and if you can work together, it’s a lot more powerful.”
Day says he hopes people in the Oregon City community will call him if they need help, or if they can help. And it’s that community-based approach that’s exceeding at least one Oregon City commissioner’s expectations.
“We’ve had better-than-expected results from the addition of Officer Day,” says Commissioner Brian Shaw. “It’s nice that not only is he able to go have conversations with our homeless folk. It’s more than that. He’s finding the resources to allow them to move on with their lives if they want to. It gives you a feeling that we’re doing this one homeless person at a time. A lot of folks, all they’re looking for is that one step."
And Day thinks his new job is just the natural next step in a life that’s always been about service and caring for others.
“I got into law enforcement because I really wanted to be out in the community,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to be indoors all the time. And I saw this would be a really cool fit. And who would have thought 10 years into my career I’d be doing something that’s not what you’d think police work is, right?”
“There’s nothing more rewarding than helping a person who’s in a really bad situation,” he says.