Webinar presenter Dan McDonald answered a number of your questions after his presentation, The Top 10 Reasons to Start a Police Homeless Outreach Team. Here are just a few of his responses.
Audience Question: How are officers assigned to your homeless outreach team? is it something that they apply for or they are assigned to? How does that work?
Dan McDonald: Chief of Police Jane Castor and Assistant Chief of police John Bennett developed the idea. They had been studying best practices from other agencies (perhaps the same situation that many of our viewers are in). As a result, my division commander stopped me in the hall one day and asked if I’d like to start a homeless outreach team. They selected me because I was very always very service-oriented and had an infinite amount of patience as well as excellent problem-solving skills (which is extremely important). I almost said no but realized that this is a great opportunity. I never thought about working with the homeless; perhaps my bosses saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I’d add that CIT officers are an excellent talent pool. Just keep in mind this is very time-consuming, boots on the ground type of work. I’ll be expanding upon this question during the second installment of this webinar in January.
Audience Question: You mentioned that you’ve been able to partner with faith-based organizations to help address homeless needs. Can you describe some of the best practices and lessons learned from those relationships?
Dan McDonald: As I mentioned, I’m not a direct service provider. I believe there’s plenty of room for faith-based communities to assist. At the most abstract level, this would be providing housing. Imagine if you went to a house of worship and when they passed the collection plate, they used the proceeds to buy housing? I’d like to shout out to one of my partner organizations, Love Inc. (In the Name of Christ). They have transitional housing they provide by raising donations to buy houses. This also cuts out the governmental red tape and applications (remember the flow chart that I showed of chronic homelessness that was more complicated than a nuclear reactor?) These organizations can be anyone. They can be faith-based or other community organizations that can fill a need and solve a problem. Like I said, my budget is zero so I need to be able to partner with other agencies that provide solutions.
Audience Question: When you work with other communities, what is the number one reason that they don’t want to take these kinds of approaches to address their homeless issues?
Dan McDonald: It is an issue of size for many smaller agencies. I work in a thousand-officer agency so devoting one officer from “traditional” police work was much easier for us. Also, most agencies don’t know how. As an example, I’ll use our highest utilizer of the criminal justice system, “Billy”. The first thing I had to figure out was how not to arrest him anymore. Yes, I’m a cop, and I’m figuring out how to not arrest someone. It sounds counter-intuitive, almost as if I’m rewarding bad behavior. I get many officers that think we are out hugging the homeless and rewarding bad behavior. That is not the case – we are soling problems (usually a lack of housing). This is problem-oriented policing. This is community-oriented policing. This is intelligence-led policing. Where are your homeless, go to them; don’t sit in an office and wait for them to come to you. I go to them because if you work in a spread-out community like I do, getting a bus pass to come to me is rarely an option.
Audience Question: When you go visit the homeless, are you usually in uniform or do you dress down?
Dan McDonald: I wear a full uniform even though the only work I do is homeless outreach. You must be committed towards helping them. I tell the homeless unless you confess to The Great Train Robbery, I’m not going to arrest you. You can tell me anything in confidence (within reason). I can often look the other way to help clients solve their problems. I sometimes pick people up from jail and take them to housing way more than I take them to jail (I haven’t made an arrest in about 8 years). Other communities often use a softer uniform such as a polo shirt. Some agencies wear plainclothes. Fort Lauderdale PD did an experiment with this issue several years ago. They wore plainclothes and found that the homeless didn’t know who they were. So, I recommend a softer uniform such as a polo shirt. Your business model is more important than your uniform since your effectiveness is based upon your reputation. I can’t enforce crime Monday, Wednesday and Friday but on Tuesday, Thursday I’m going to help you because. You will be viewed as hypocritical. The only resource that I have is my trust. If I don’t have trust with the homeless community, I am out of business.
Audience Question: There are some folks that say the homeless choose to live this way. How do we overcome these objections whether it’s within the public or within our agency?
Dan McDonald: That’s a very good question which I get often. It comes back to resilience. Remember the video of “Bill” in the camp? At some point that goes from being a bad option into being a maybe an acceptable option. Humans are very resilient. They can get used to this, and that’s scary. They may even say they like it or they like the freedom, but most don’t. Most homeless don’t know where to begin, such as Jerry, the guy in the wheelchair. He said “no” to my offers of assistance for 4-1/2 years. He finally said “yes” and everything fell into place. Word gets around. If you think Facebook is fast for spreading the word, the homeless network is way faster. When you start delivering results and start getting people off the streets, then the people that were the “no’s” turn into a “yes”. Also, my loudest critics at work that I’m out there hugging the homeless have turned into the first that call with referrals and questions. It’s very possible and very doable to get the buy-in from the homeless community as well as your agency as well.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of The Top 10 Reasons to Start a Police Homeless Outreach Team.