Police role with homeless population: enforcers or helpers?

    Dave Ritchie, a plumber by trade, lives in a nearby self-made shack in the woods in Allentown, Pa. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Dave Ritchie, a plumber by trade, lives in a nearby self-made shack in the woods in Allentown, Pa. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Several cities have launched homeless outreach teams, made up of officers dedicated solely to helping people who are homeless.

    Video by NationSwell

    In Pennsylvania, the homeless population has increased for three of the past four years. That’s in contrast to the country as a whole, where the number of people who are homeless has been decreasing each year.

    Keystone Crossroads has written about how Pennsylvania cities are approaching these communities and in some cases, shutting down tent cities that pop up. 

    That’s why this video caught our attention. It’s a profile of Houston Police Sergeant Stephen Wick, who’s part of the city’s Homeless Outreach Team. It’s an initiative that turns the usual “police as enforcers” model on its head.

    Sergeant Wick has worked for the Houston Police Department for more than 20 years. He was a bicycle patrol officer for many years, and he got to know the people who lived on the street. He tried to help them out when he could.

    And then about four years ago, Wick attended a conference hosted by the Colorado Springs Police Department.

    In 2008, the city of Colorado Springs started to see a jump in the number of homeless camps on its public land. The police department launched a team of three officers to help people who live on the street find housing and jobs. 

    Wick was inspired, and he started a homeless outreach team at the Houston Police Department. The goal was to build relationships with people, figure out why they were on the street, and shepherd them through the process of finding medical care, housing, and employment, Wick says.

    Together with a mental health provider, the officers connect people who are homeless with community groups, including churches and veterans organizations. The police will also help people who are unsheltered with smaller tasks, whether that’s getting an ID, finding a shelter, or even paying for the bus.

    The simple things

    Wick says one of the biggest problems facing people who are homeless is getting a valid photo ID.  In Houston, if you don’t have a photo ID, “all the doors are shut to you,” he says. Shelters and detox facilities, for instance, require photo identification.

    But photo IDs are also nearly impossible to get, Wick says, because they require a person to go to four or five locations and present documents they don’t have.

    “So we help them,” Wick says. 

    The officers will try to confirm a person’s identity by searching police records for previous driver’s licenses or other identification. That only works if the person remembers his or her name. 

    Of course, “a lot of folks don’t know who they are,” Wick says. “I’ve got one guy who thought he was James Bond.”

    If a person doesn’t know who he is, the officers will run his fingerprints to see if he’s been arrested previously. 

    If that doesn’t work, Wick’s team does things the old-fashioned way. The department has big boxes full of mug shots. In the case of “James Bond,” one of the officers dug through the boxes until finding a photo of their guy from the early 1990s. His name was Curtis.

    After the police identify someone, they’ll print out a photo ID, notarize it, laminate it, and then help the person use it. In Curtis’s case, that ID meant he could finally access his social security benefits. 

    Why the police? 

    Wick says it’s important that the city have advocates for the homeless within the police department. For one thing, the police department has access to records that nonprofit organizations don’t. That means they can help people like Curtis figure out who they are. 

    Also, police officers are well-equipped to venture into potentially dangerous situations. “We go places that case managers won’t,” Wick says. “They just won’t go into the camps we go to. There’s all sorts of people on the street. It’s just not safe.”

    Wick says the homeless outreach team gives the police department a better way to address complaints related to homelessness, whether that’s public urination and defecation, or panhandling, or other problems.

    “Historically, the tools you would have to deal with that problem would be the penal code,” Wick says. But with this approach, “we’re getting people off the street, and we’re eliminating the problems that they cause,” he says.

    A growing trend

    There are a few other cities with police units dedicated to the homeless population.

    The city of Wichita, Kansas, has a four-officer team that responds to all 911 calls regarding people who are homeless. According to their website, they try to keep the homeless out of jail, and instead refer them to shelters and other service centers.

    Pasadena, California has a similar program, which launched in 2002. Pasadena Police officer Elgin Lee says the team doesn’t create ID cards, but officers do connect people to a local organization that will. The officers also inform the public that people who are homeless have civil rights. For instance, if someone calls to complain because a person is sitting on a public bench, the officers will make sure the caller understands that the individual has a right to be there.

    In Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Police Department has a unit of 10 officers who work directly with the city’s homeless population. The department wasn’t able to provide any more information on that program by press time. 

    But Laura Weinbaum, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives at the nonprofit organization Philadelphia HOME, says her team works closely with the Philadelphia police department. In particular, they train officers on how to approach someone with a behavioral health problem.

    “The police are the daily eyes and ears on the streets of Philadelphia,” Weinbaum says. “There is a great value in having them involved.”

    Earning trust

    Weinbaum says this work is about building relationships. “I think often people who live on the street have some wariness of the police that we don’t usually face in the same way,” she adds. “It would definitely be interesting to try to build those bridges in order to fight that perception.”

    Houston’s Sergeant Wick says his team initially thought they would see resistance from the homeless community. “When we started the team, we’d thought the homeless would be a hard group to get to trust you,” he says. “But it wasn’t the homeless, it was the providers. They didn’t trust us.”

    The providers thought the police were out to sweep tent cities and arrest people, Wick says. But over time, the officers have gained the community’s trust, he says.

    Wick says that to date, the team has helped more than 500 people find temporary or permanent housing.

    “That’s pretty incredible for a small group of officers,” Wick adds (if he does say so himself). “We’ve got a lady that was living in a shopping cart. Now we’ve got her in a personal care home. It’s awesome.” 

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