In Salem, police team up with social workers to offer help instead of jail

Josh Lair stands by Marion Square Park, where many of his clients spend their time. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Josh Lair has learned one secret to earning trust when police call him out to meet a prospective client.

Don’t look like a cop.

Few people would mistake the 6-foot-2 social worker with a shaved head for a police officer. He favors jeans and hoodies, and even when he’s bundled up against the cold, a piece of his neck tattoo, which reads “Christ and love,” is visible.

“I’m covered in tattoos,” Lair said with a laugh.

With an easy smile and soft voice, Lair is the face of a new Marion County effort to aid some of Salem’s hardest to help residents: people who cycle in and out of jail and the emergency room because they’re homeless, have serious health problems or are addicted to drugs.

Police know many of those residents and regularly arrest them for minor crimes like trespassing or drug possession.

But Marion County prosecutors and police agree that such an approach rarely works. People forced into drug treatment by the court system aren’t as successful long term as people who choose to get clean on their own, said Jan Calvin, the county’s coordinator for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.

Jail is expensive and giving someone struggling with housing a criminal record rarely makes it easier for them to get back on their feet.

The upshot? The county can spend tens of thousands of dollars arresting and jailing someone repeatedly without anything changing in their lives or improving the community.

“That physical and sometimes a mental health issue is really what they need to be addressed, not any particular crime they have committed,” Calvin said. Arrest and jail are the wrong tools to use, she said.

That’s where Lair comes in.

He’s the first “navigator” for the county diversion program that began in April.

Now, when police come across someone who they could arrest for a minor crime in the downtown or Four Corners area, they can call Lair instead.

He’s on duty weekdays and will head out to the streets to talk to the officer and client.

When Lair meets someone new, he hands them a brochure and explains the diversion program. Instead of going to jail, they’re free to go and have a week to meet with Lair to talk about their goals and how he can help.

Then, he checks in with them as often as is needed to see how they’re doing. Often, it’s shoe leather work, walking downtown streets and asking after people.

“If any of my clients are out and about, they know that I’m available if they need something,” he said.

He can make phone calls for clients who don’t have a phone or know who to reach out to.

And he can advocate for his clients when making medical appointments or meeting with service providers.  

“They expect them to make a phone call that they’re going to be late. Well, with what phone? Not everybody can afford a cellphone bill,” he said.

Most clients are what social workers term “service resistant” – people who are reluctant to seek help because of poor past experiences, a lack of hope or simply not knowing where to start.

“There’s folks that have reached out for help and gotten turned away or treated poorly or unfairly. There’s folks who have gotten caught up in living life a certain way they’re not really sure how to go back,” Lair said. “They get tired. They feel like they have to jump through this hoop and that hoop and there seems to be no end to it.”

Those people are often skeptical when he explains that they have a choice besides going to jail.

“They do ask, ‘Is this real? Is this a setup? Is this a snitch program?’” Lair said. He’s serious about showing his clients that he’s there for them, whether that means attending their court dates or walking around downtown keeping an eye out for someone he needs to check on.

“I’m gonna be right there with them in the thick of it,” he said. “Building that relationship is my number one priority.”

The approach works because Lair knows what it’s like to be in his clients’ shoes. He’s recovered from methamphetamine and alcohol addiction, spent time in prison and briefly lived under the West Salem bridge after being paroled.

He knows what it’s like to try drug treatment and fail. And he also knows what it’s like to get better.

“I get to tell them that hey, I get it. My life experiences are worse than some and better than others,” he said.

When he walks into the ARCHES office or through the camp under the bridge, he fits in.

“Josh can go places we can’t,” said Lt. Chris Baldridge, one of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office deputies working on the program. “Josh is accepted and known by the population we’re attempting to serve and has a lot of trust and respect in that community.”

Lair started a career in social work five years ago after completing an addiction studies degree at Chemeketa Community College. He was inspired by a counselor he had after getting out of prison, who explained how Lair could use his experience to help others.

 “I didn’t really know with my criminal history that there was an option to do what I do,” Lair said. He worked as an addiction counselor with Bridgeway before coming to Marion County.

On Jan. 11, Lair will celebrate eight years of sobriety.

He joined the diversion program because he wanted the chance to be part of something. Working with police to keep people out of jail fit the bill.

The program began in April with $83,000 from Willamette Valley Community Health, which mostly pays Lair’s salary and benefits.

The program is driven by what clients want to work on, whether it’s getting sober, finding housing or regaining custody of children.

It’s modeled on a similar program from the United Kingdom that has now been used in larger U.S. cities, including Seattle and Portland.

“We’re not saying you have to go to treatment, but if you decide that’s where you want to go, our navigator can support you and help you get there,” Calvin said.

Marion County will evaluate the diversion program after a year-long pilot to see how well it reduces drug use, contact with police, recidivism and emergency room use among clients.

Baldridge said he’s seen some individual successes, including a woman who was about to have her children placed up for adoption before enrolling in the program. She once again can at least visit her children.

“With the limited funding that we’ve had and the limited amount of resources that we’ve had it’s so exciting to see these success stories,” he said.

Since April, 20 people have enrolled in the diversion program out of 23 initially referred by police, Calvin said. Of those, 14 are still working with Lair. The goal is to have no more than 20 clients per navigator because of the amount of work that’s involved for each person.

Marion County has set aside money to hire two additional navigators in 2019, and the county recently received two federal Department of Justice grants totaling $1.3 million to expand over the next three years, Calvin said. Those will cover hiring additional navigators and likely let the county expand the geographic area the program serves.

Calvin said having experience like Lair’s is an important qualification for navigators.

Police said they’re able to work with Lair to keep an eye on current and prospective clients. If someone stops checking in, he can walk downtown and check in with people in camps to see how they’re doing.

“He may know where they are and follow up and have them get in touch with us,” said Sgt. Kevin Hill, who runs the Salem Police Department’s downtown enforcement team.

Lair hopes his own life can inspire clients who might be ready to change but lack the to try one more time.

“What matters is I get it, I came from it, and I’m on the other side. I get to be that walking, talking hope,” Lair said.

This story was updated on Jan. 3, 2019 to clarify a quote from Jan Calvin.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: (503) 575-1241 or [email protected]

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.