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Police Team with Community Organizations for Homeless Outreach

Published on Wednesday, November 18, 2020 | 1:05 pm
Police and members of community organizations carry out homeless outreach in Pasadena in November 2020. (Credit: City of Pasadena.

Police officers recently teamed with other city officials and community outreach organizations to try to match people dealing with homelessness with services and resources in a collaboration under the Pasadena Police Department’s new Neighborhood Services Section.

During a canvassing effort earlier this month, 16 people were contacted and offered help to get them off the streets, according to city officials.

Participants included the Pasadena Police Department’s Homeless Outreach and Psychiatric Evaluation Team, the Pasadena Outreach Response Team and Union Station Homeless Services personnel, which have recently been organized to work more closely with each other, said Pasadena police Cmdr. Jason Clawson.

“During the reorganization of 2020 here at the Police Department, the chief of police formed the Neighborhood Services Section, which is a group of officers and non-sworn employees that have come together to combat quality-of-life issues, to include homeless, mental crisis and park safety under one umbrella,” the commander said.

The HOPE team consists of police officers partnered with clinicians from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

The PORT team launched in 2018 under the Pasadena Fire Department and Pasadena Public Health Department with the goal “to identify individuals impacted by chronic homelessness and, through supportive services and case management, assist them in moving off the streets into permanent housing,” city officials said in a written statement.

The teams consist of a social worker, a public health nurse, a firefighter and an outreach worker from Union Station Homeless Services.

A Neighborhood Action Team of six police officers and a sergeant has also been formed to specifically focus on quality-of-life issues, rather than answering traditional service calls, Clawson explained.

The Pasadena Police Department espouses the “PIE” model of policing, based upon prevention, intervention and enforcement,” Clawson said. “And if we can do prevention or intervention pretty well, we’re not going to need that much enforcement.”

“These components have more time to take somebody to a homeless shelter, to set up counseling services, to make referrals to all of the other community-based organizations or nonprofits in town,” according to Clawson.

The department handles more than 1,000 calls on an average day, he said. But many of them do not require a law enforcement response.

“We’re going to have our HOPE team experts, the sworn officers, try to evaluate that call once it comes in. And instead of the police responding, we’re going to have someone else respond to deal with those issues,” he said. “It could be the HOPE team. It could be the homeless outreach coordinator for Union Station. It could be any number of different resources that we’ve partnered with to go and address that call for service that, in reality, doesn’t need an armed response. So we’re in the experimental stages.”

When it comes to societal issues like homelessness, mental health and substance abuse, police are “one piece of the puzzle,” Clawson said.

Officers conducting outreach work often wear plain clothes in lieu of a uniform.

“Removing that badge is something that we feel is important, because a lot of times that badge means one thing to people, and that’s incarceration.”

Police invite community outreach programs and nonprofit organizations to come along as they visit encampments, said Lt. Monica Cuellar.

“When we go, it’s not about just enforcement, it’s about outreach because we know these problems are going to be a revolving door and happen again,” according to the lieutenant.

“So what we try to do is get them interested in housing. Not all of them are going to take it,” she said. “The last one we did, we got seven people to sign up, which is pretty good.”

“Some are service resistant,” Clawson said. “We’re trying to get the people off the embankments and into a shelter and/or housing.”

Shelters and programs have rules, such as disallowing drug use, he said. And while resources to help addicts pursue sobriety are available, “some people don’t want to.”

Union Station CEO Anne Miskey said she’s already seen the collaboration lead to real change.

“We’ve seen that by collaborating both with the HOPE and the PORT teams, with the police and the Fire Department, that we can actually really create solutions for people who are experiencing homelessness,” Miskey said. 

“We can, together, create solutions that provide positive alternatives for people on the streets, getting them off the streets and into housing or into treatment, rather than into jail or into the hospital,” she said.

“By having us as a service provider, we can provide alternatives,” said Miskey. “We can get [people] connected to services. We can get them into either temporary or permanent housing, and it’s about really us working together to problem solve. And sometimes there is still a lack of resources, but again, by putting our heads together and our resources together, we can create these positive solutions.”

Juliana Serrano, a senior associate at Peace & Justice and Office for Creative Connections at All Saints Church in Pasadena, said she approved of the endeavor.

“I applaud efforts to decentralize the PPD in addressing challenges the community experiences with homelessness,” she said. “For years, advocates have attempted to get law enforcement agencies and municipalities across the nation to decriminalize homelessness. While there has been some success, 911 or local police dispatch are still frequently called to address matters that are not critical to public safety. I know this is true for the PPD.

“The entire community will benefit from a new strategic approach that seeks experts in mental health and homeless service provision to respond to these calls because those professionals can expertly work with individuals and attempt to address the root of their issues,” Serrano said. “We have a long legacy of merely enforcing the way out of the problem. This has not served our community well. It is time for a new approach.”

In Pasadena, Serrano said, “we are very lucky to have HOPE teams as part of the Police Department and I believe these teams have done good work to better serve our community, in particular those suffering from mental health issues and homelessness.” However, she said, “there have only been a few teams operating at any given time and they have limited hours and capacity on a weekly basis. It would be wonderful to see how this effort could be expanded.”

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