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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019 12:08 am

H.O.T. cops reaching out

Officer Chris Jones makes first contact with a man who was panhandling on the corner of South Grand Avenue and Fifth Street.
Photo by Lindsey Salvatelli

 

The Springfield Police Department is now one of just a handful of law enforcement agencies around the country that has a Homeless Outreach Team.

Homelessness isn’t isolated to one part of Springfield, and responding police officers have been left with limited options when dealing with a transient population. “There’s not a section of town or beat that doesn’t have homeless people,” said Gerry Castles, a sergeant with the Springfield Police Department. But that could change now that the SPD has developed a full-time position to work with Springfield’s homeless population.

There were 271 homeless people counted at a shelter in Springfield in January 2018, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  However, those numbers don’t include those who may have sought shelter at the home of a friend or family member during the extreme cold.

The Homeless Outreach Team became an official part of the department on Jan. 2. Officer Chris Jones, who previously worked as the neighborhood police officer covering part of downtown and Enos Park for three years, will be heading the team.

Jones said the program has three components: outreach to Springfield’s homeless population, the Guiding Your Way Home program and educating the public as well as other officers about people who are homeless.

The outreach component assists the homeless with a variety of tasks such as filling out paperwork for health care or getting a driver’s license. It’s also about establishing trust to be able to help those who may be skeptical. “A regular officer doesn’t have time to take someone to fill out an application or help you get a driver’s license,” Jones said.

Guiding Your Way Home works with homeless people who may have connections outside of Springfield, but for whatever reason, wound up homeless in the city. Money donated to the program covers the costs of a train or bus ticket to send the stranded home. Castles explained the program has already helped two men return to their home states after contacting family members, who had no idea where either man had been. “It’s not us, the city, passing the person onto the next city,” Castles said, since the program insures the individual has a place to go.

Working with other officers to provide them with information they need when dealing with someone who may be homeless and educating the public about how to help the homeless is also part of Jones’ position.

“The public needs to know not all panhandlers are homeless, and those who aren’t are playing on the public’s emotions,” Jones said. He said it’s better to donate to charities because a dollar goes further in the hands of charities that can use their resources to help more people.

But the Homeless Outreach Team isn’t just focused on those who are homeless. Jones said he’s also tasked with trying to serve those who are at-risk of becoming homeless, which often includes those who battle mental illness.

One such example of the program working was a woman the department had received calls about, or from, 93 times over four months. After several interactions with the woman, officers decided to bring along a social worker to visit with her. Once contact with the clinician had been established, Castles said the department received just eight calls about the individual in the following three months. “She was well on her way to becoming homeless, because her family members were afraid,” Jones said.

Responding to the calls of just one homeless person costs, on average, $1782 a month, Jones said. “The bigger question is, how can we not afford to do it?” Jones asked.  

Castles said while the Homeless Outreach Team consists of just one officer for now, the program helps other officers realize they can take a better approach to dealing with the homeless. “With each one of these people there’s a story, and it’s Chris’ job to unravel that story,” Castles said.

Years of service calls about the homeless weren’t addressing the real problem, Castles said. He said homelessness is “a symptom” of a larger problem, and issuing citations and arresting individuals failed to get to the root.

“It was just a revolving door,” Castles said. “It’s so frustrating to deal with the same thing over and over and reach no resolution.”  

Lindsey Salvatelli is an editorial intern with Illinois Times as part of the Public Affairs Reporting master’s degree program at University of Illinois Springfield. Contact her at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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