Local government

Ontario police chief sketches new approach to city’s growing homeless dilemma

ONTARIO – The homeless situation in Ontario is reaching a crisis point and Ontario Police Chief Mike Iwai offered steps – including a plan hire a new police officer – to address the issue.
Iwai asked the Ontario City Council on Tuesday, Sept. 13, to create a fund to help transport homeless out of the area and urged more cooperation between area agencies on the problem.
The homeless continue to impact downtown Ontario where merchants have complained to the police about problems created by transients.
Iwai said his officers are spending more time responding to calls regarding the homeless than in the past and that the majority of those contacts involve transients who grapple with substance abuse or mental health challenges.
“This isn’t a police department issue but a community issue,” Iwai told the council.
Police have few tools – other than to warn transients to leave – when they respond to a business owner who complains.
“When we are looking at enforcing code enforcement, we have to look at the code language, what the transient is violating. The only arm we have is to move them from point A to point B,” said Iwai.
Police contacts with transients, said Iwai, also typically take more time. At the same time, since most complaints fall within the city’s nuisance ordinance, the ordinance officer often makes the initial contact with a transient.
That creates safety concerns, said Iwai. Until recently, that officer was Rick Reyna, now in patrol.
“When I really look at the numbers and look at some of the calls Rick is going to, he probably shouldn’t have been going because he is not a peace officer by definition,” said Iwai.
Iwai said there are about 330 homeless in Ontario.
Along with the added police officer, Iwai also wants to create a coalition between the police department and the various agencies in town that offer services for the homeless.
Iwai proposed creating a stakeholder engagement plan, where agencies such as Community in Action and Origins Faith Community, nonprofits that work with unsheltered people, and the police department to share statistics, goals and solutions.
“We have a lot of resources but the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Funds are kind of siloed. There are a lot of resources in the community and the resource organizations are really not doing a good job of connecting the dots,” said Iwai.
Iwai said each entity is focused on its specific piece of the larger homeless problem but a broader view of the challenge is necessary.
“We need to create partnerships and address homeless in a uniformed way,” said Iwai.
Iwai emphasized the homeless issue isn’t simply a police problem.
“But who do they call when they have a homeless person peeing on a building downtown? They don’t call Lifeways, they call us. We definitely want to be part of the solution,” said Iwai.
Iwai said the transportation fund will be used to help homeless who become stuck in Ontario while they are trying to move from one area to another.
“I’d like to be able to provide that assistance. If we can help them get somewhere I’d like to help them get there,” said Iwai.
Iwai also said he wants to a create program similar to Neighborhood Watch but with businesses to help solve the homeless challenge.
Iwai said during a recent meeting with downtown merchants he discovered that some business owners don’t call police to address issues created by transients.
“I was taken aback. I said you have to call us. The Ontario Police Department has a philosophy that no call is too small,” said Iwai.
Iwai said the addition of a new police officer at a cost of about $130,000 a year won’t solve the problem. Nor will other measures such as the transportation fund, a more unified response to the homeless or a Business Watch. Fusing those steps into a single plan, though, would be a good start, he said.
Iwai said his agency has 25 officers and should have at least five more.
Iwai said the climb in the number of homeless can be traced, at least in part, to the passage of Measure 110. Voters approved the measure in 2020. The measure diminishes penalties for drug possession. The measure was also designed to fund drug addiction treatments and recovery programs through marijuana sales revenue and the savings achieved from not enforcing criminal drug possession penalties.
Ken Hart, city council president, said the city will have to “look at the numbers” regarding hiring a new police officer.
“Adding more officers is important but it is just one component. We need to go upstream. What has caused this increase in homeless?” he said.
Hart said he believes that along with Measure 110, the number of marijuana dispensaries in the community also plays a role in the rise in the homeless population.
He suggested the community repeal the city’s existing marijuana ordinance that allows for the retail sale of the drug.
“I’d like to go back to the voters and say, let’s look in the mirror. Are we happy with what we have done? I believe we made a mistake,” said Hart.
“There are lots of legal issues. But I would like to try and go down that path and say we’ve had a chance to see how this has impacted the community,” he said.
The city, he said, collects $3 million a year from marijuana tax revenues.
“I’d give back the $3 million in a second to not have this,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Steven Meland, Hotbox Farms marijuana dispensary owner and founder, said he doesn’t agree retail sales of marijuana created more homeless.
“They don’t have anything that says that with any kind of scientific detail. It is them posturing and putting their own personal beliefs in front of reality. Simply trying to blame a separate issue on something they don’t like is them trying to relate two things that are unrelated,” Meland said in an interview.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM – Available for $7.50 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for – day in and day out from the Enterprise.