LEAD program seeks to stop the cycle of drug abuse, jail, with self-directed goals

Screening coordinator Juliana Depietro and the team of caseworkers helped 53-year-old Ty Grove get out from living under the Steel Bridge and a 40-year drug habit. (Central City Concern)

Stopping the cycle of low-level drug arrests, jail and then a return to the streets is the idea behind a Seattle program that took root in Portland’s Old Town one year ago.

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program or LEAD, is a Multnomah County effort in cooperation with Central City Concern and the Portland Police Bureau.

The LEAD program implemented on the streets of Seattle seven years ago sought to keep low-level drug offenders out of jail and on a path out of homelessness and drug abuse.

After one year in Portland, the program has showed promising results.

"Jail hasn’t been a successful intervention to stop using or getting arrested for their substance use, so it’s an innovative approach to really try to meet people where they’re at," said Central City Concern's Karen Kern.

Kern says the innovative part of the program is allowing the clients to self-direct their goals, big or small.

“We ask them what do they want to work on and then just kind of go down the list of the needs that they’ve identified and help them meet those needs,” she said. “If they’re interested, the caseworker signs them up pretty much right there. And then they are assigned a case manager that works with them really closely based on their self-identified needs.”

Those needs could be as something as simple as socks, blankets or a jacket, or addressing chronic health problems or housing.

Screening coordinator Juliana Depietro and the team of caseworkers helped 53-year-old Ty Grove get out from living under the Steel Bridge and a 40-year drug habit.

“Often in the case of an arrest diversion, folks are a little skeptical about our program, but they are willing to try something new if it means they don’t have to go to jail,” Depietro said.

Grove has been clean and sober for seven months and moved into an apartment four months ago.

“I tell people from the get-go that they won’t have to do any kind of prescriptive treatment program -- they get to really drive,” Depietro said. “They get to set their goals and work with a case manager on whatever they want to work on.”

For Portland police bike officer Dave Sanders, the program is another tool to not only help people on the street, but to protect residents and business owners.

“Some people we interact with are awesome for the program. We know like, “Hey, this is somebody who might be new to this lifestyle, just getting into this and might need this to pull them back out.’”

Sanders says the program's strength lies in the quick response of caseworkers like Depietro, who meet clients wherever they may be.

“It kind of helps maybe motivate via these case managers to start that change in their lives that they need to do,” Sanders said. “They don’t have to get on a list for a week or two or a month -- they’re able to start that process right away.”

The LEAD program has contacted about one hundred clients in its first year, but expects to reach many more in the coming months.

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