Help to the homeless is a police issue.
It is estimated that there are over 7,500 homeless people in Pinellas County, Fla. Tarpon Springs has seen a large increase in the homeless population segment, along with an increase of reported public nuisances. Many of these individuals reside within the wooded areas throughout the city; however, an even larger number traverse city lines each day in an effort to make their way to the food programs offered seven days a week in Tarpon Springs. Among the homeless, word gets around and they gravitate toward communities with support services.
In response to the growing homeless population, as well as the crimes attributed them, the Tarpon Springs Police initiated the Homeless Outreach Project Endeavor (HOPE), a program to address these concerns.
One program drawing homeless people to Tarpons Springs is run by the Sheppard Center. The Center’s mission is to assist homeless and low-income individuals and families, in cooperation with local churches and the housing authority.
The Sheppard Center provides free, donated bakery food (mostly bread) to anyone who shows up for it each day. It also provides a number of other services, such as bags of free food to clients in other programs. Other Sheppard Center services for low-income individuals include free dental, non-prescription drugs, a volunteer doctor who works with donated glasses, volunteer nurses, and a volunteer beautician.
The Center provides an important resource and a source of nutrition for those in need, and the overwhelming majority of those getting help are appreciative and respectful of others. However, a small percentage of these individuals create a large volume of public nuisances. There are concerns that about 31 percent have physical, medical or HIV / AIDS issues, 36 percent have alcohol / drug abuse problems, others have mental and emotion issues, and another percentage have both mental health and alcohol / drug abuse troubles.
According to Captain Jeff Young of Tarpon Springs PD, the issue of homelessness is not confined to the City of Tarpon Springs, nor is it just a police issue. Rather, the subject needs to be addressed on a large scale, requiring the members of the community to become stakeholders.
Police can enforce the laws on a daily basis and the community can provide assistance to those in need. However, there will not be any significant change in the behavior of those who violate the law and/or cause the public nuisances until the underlying problems are addressed. The actions or inactions taken can dictate the quality of life for everyone in the community.
The most notable law enforcement concerns are aggressive panhandling, disorderly conduct, disorderly intoxication, trespassing, petit / retail thefts, public urination, and abusive language. Before Project HOPE began, complaints from the businesses about these problems were common. Now there are notably fewer.
To minimize the trends observed, the police department’s recommendations for the food program, and for the Sheppard Center to enact, included creating an ID system. This would not only help to identify and eliminate those who were abusing the system and not truly in need of services, it would more importantly help to make sure that none of the individuals being served were wanted or on the sexual predator / offender list.
People with records are a big concern for the residential community. This is especially true for Catholic churches with schools attached. Some of the homeless tended to hang out overnight on church property, and again there were the issues of public urination and defecation and their aftermaths, which the schools wanted rectified before children began arriving.
While the Catholic churches of Tarpons Springs do not provide meals, they do provide food and money, budgeted to assist with social services. It is more their concern for their school campuses regarding the homeless who don’t want help or drunks who have to be arrested. A social services volunteer worker said talking to an intoxicated person or someone on drugs is time consuming, and not like dealing with a sober person.
The Host Team
The HOST Team
The police department is currently working with the Sheppard Center to establish a Homeless Outreach Support Team (HOST). This team would be comprised of a police officer, a job counselor, a drug / alcohol counselor, a health care worker, psychiatrist, a Tarpon Springs Housing Authority member, and a Veterans Affairs official.
With this arrangement, the HOST team could set up once a week at the food programs, begin to identify the needs of the individuals who arrive, and provide them with job training, needed social services, or public housing if they qualify. For example, if the individual is a veteran, he/ she may be entitled to benefits through the VA. Or the individual may be in need of health care or identified as someone in need of psychiatric care. The team would be able to address these needs and help bridge the gap from homelessness and dependence to gainfully employed and independent.
The team could also assist in directing the individual to places offering a safe environment or specialized programs, based upon his / her specific needs. Many resources offered through Tampa Bay 211, an agency that provides a communication link to health and human services resources, could be called upon as partners to help with this outreach program, and temporary shelters, such as those offered through Pinellas Hope or other charitable organizations, could be available to assist.
In addition to the weekly meetings at the food program locations, on a different day the HOST team could go out in the field to proactively identify others with whom they have not made contact and provide these same services.
With targeted enforcement efforts for areas identified as “hot spots” where these public nuisances are occurring, and interaction with Code Enforcement, the police department could identify homeless encampments and take the appropriate actions toward having these camps dismantled.
Other social services within the county that HOPE officers can inform others about include Directions for Mental Health, Inc. and Operation PAR, Inc, a provider of comprehensive grant-funded behavioral health services that work with the state, county and the police. Some shelter placements can be found for 12 days out of a month, but these are usually for women with children and not for the man who has been camping for years.
The issue of homelessness is not confined to the City of Tarpon Springs, nor is it just a police issue. Rather, the subject needs to be addressed on a large scale, including with members of the community. Police can enforce laws on a daily basis, and the members of a community can provide assistance to those in need.
However, the reality is that there won’t be significant change in the behavior of those who violate the law and / or cause the public nuisances until the underlying problems are addressed. The police will not be able to solve the issue of homelessness, but with proper training and clear objectives / guidance, they can help lessen the undesirable consequences as they relate to public nuisances.
Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, Ohio, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER. Mickey Davis is a California-based writer and author.