March 4, 2014

New police initiative reaches out to uptown Charlotte’s homeless

Officers Brad Hall and Bob Goodwin are tasked with dealing with the street homeless who sleep in camps, below overpasses or on the steps of churches uptown.

The camp site near the N.C. Music Factory is a mess, littered with empty food containers, moldy, discarded blankets and liquor bottles filled with urine. Officer Brad Hall yells to the tent, asking if anyone’s there. A man’s hand fumbles for the zipper.

The temperature hovers just above freezing Tuesday morning last week. Hall, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, and his partner, Bob Goodwin, are making their rounds to homeless camps in uptown Charlotte, as they do most weekdays.

Inside the tent two men and a 21-year-old woman are sleeping on an inflatable king-sized mattress. Bikes are stashed nearby, with other belongings under a tarp a few feet away.

They’re familiar with Hall and Goodwin, who tell the trio they’re not there to make them move out, but they are concerned about the trash. Living in the tattered tent reinforced with white plastic and duct tape can’t be a long-term solution, the officers say.

“What’s your plan?” Hall asks Jazmine Jones, who’s been on the streets since she dropped out of high school. “I know you can’t like living in there, especially with you being so young.”

She speaks of a father in Florida, but can’t make the 600-mile trip because she doesn’t have money for bus fare.

“If we were to get you back there, would you have somewhere to go?” Hall asks.

Hall and Goodwin believe they’ve had similar conversations with most of the homeless population in uptown. They’re the only officers in the department tasked specifically with dealing with the street homeless who sleep in camps, below overpasses or on the steps of churches in the center city.

Police and homeless advocates say the initiative, which started last year, doesn’t aim to arrest or scatter the homeless, but to nudge them toward long-term solutions.

“The police attitude before wasn’t very holistic. They were just combative, and they would clear out camps,” said Janetta Lambert, the housing readiness coordinator for Urban Ministry Center.

Now, she said, officers are less of a threat and more a part of the solution.

Arrest or assistance?

The officers walk a delicate line between enforcing the law and getting help for some of the city’s most vulnerable people. A sleeping man huddled under blankets beneath an overpass is a trespasser who can be cited or arrested. But he may also be someone who needs drug treatment, or a veteran who’s a candidate for special assistance.

“If we arrest them for trespassing, they’re probably not going to get the help they need,” Goodwin said. “It just really makes a lot more sense to provide help for these people. Let’s just break that cycle.”

To some of the homeless they are still police officers with guns, badges and training, in a department that has had a sometimes shaky relationship with the homeless. In 2010, a CMPD officer was disciplined for allegedly leaving a homeless man out in the cold to freeze to death. And in past years, police have cracked down on homeless people suspected of breaking into cars.

Hall and Goodwin have made about a dozen arrests and routinely run background checks of the people they encounter. One homeless woman who camps near UNC Charlotte’s uptown campus won’t speak to Goodwin because he was part of a team that involuntarily committed her to a mental facility.

Most live uptown

A survey conducted last month found 171 homeless people living outdoors in Mecklenburg County, down from 283 last year and 314 four years ago. That number can change every time a bus pulls into the uptown Greyhound bus station, police say.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police estimate that more than half the city’s homeless population lives in uptown – in walking distance of shelters and organizations that serve food, but also in the shadows of the skyscrapers of the city’s central business district.

Goodwin, a 26-year veteran of the department, began trying to connect the homeless to services a decade ago, when he noticed many were living under bridges and overpasses, surrounded by trash and human waste. He worked with the Department of Transportation to relocate the homeless people and clean out the bridges, “but I felt bad putting them out there with no place to go.”

So he handed out business cards and pamphlets for shelters and aid groups. As he encountered homeless people on the streets or in camps, he’d dole out more cards.

“I’d try to give them these resources,” he said. “I guess I always had compassion for people that were down on their luck.”

Besides his other duties, he tried to connect them with people who could provide meals, substance-abuse treatment or help with housing. He also passed out literature about community resources.

Effort goes full time

A year ago, after a police study of the homeless in uptown and an uptick in crime, he approached his bosses about working with the homeless full time. Hall joined about seven months ago, working with Goodwin on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

At the same time, CMPD began to partner with shelter staff and other organizations such as the Urban Ministry Center and Charlotte Center City Partners to connect the homeless with available resources and to educate shelter staff. They also work to hold private property owners accountable for cleaning up areas frequently used to commit crimes or where the homeless become victims.

The National Coalition for the Homeless encourages such actions and warns policymakers that harsh approaches to homelessness – by making public feeding illegal or cracking down on sleeping in public areas, for example – can actually make the problem worse.

Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Organization for the Homeless, said police departments in cities across the nation have struggled to walk the line between their primary job of enforcing the law and getting homeless people real help.

“Some of the outreach teams set up by police departments across the country, they’re called nice names like the homeless outreach teams, but they’re doing the bidding of the mayor and the uptown business community,” he said.

He said most departments would benefit by giving all officers extensive training about homelessness.

“Some of the veteran police officers, they have that body of knowledge,” he said, “but doing training right off the bat for rookie police officers would make it clear that homeless citizens are equal to other citizens, and they need to be treated with the same degree of respect.”

Tent dweller’s new start

Hall and Goodwin start early each day, around 6 a.m., while many of the homeless are still rising. Police and advocates estimate there are some 15 camps in uptown, mostly along railroad tracks that bisect the center city.

Goodwin and Hall know most of the homeless people they encounter by name. They also are up to speed on other important details – whether a homeless person has a history of mental illness or an arrest record, whether the person is going to school or working or trying to find a job.

They hope Kent Dixon will be a success story of their approach. Dixon, 49, lost his job as a hospital medication technician after he moved in with his mother, who was battling cancer. The bills piled up, and the family lost everything, including the house he was living in. Dixon has been on the streets since his mother died.

At night he sleeps in a well-maintained tent near the Music Factory and some railroad tracks. He has piled up pieces of wood for privacy, and he carefully disposes of food scraps and other trash.

One morning, he woke up to see several homeless advocates, railroad security officers and police officers. One of them was Bob Goodwin.

They struck a deal. He could stay on the property if he moved steadily toward a job and a home.

‘They get it’

In an interview outside his tent last week, he spoke well of Goodwin and Hall.

“Those two really care,” he said. “The other ones they just want to give people a hard time. But as long as you show some effort, they treat you well.”

For him, effort meant getting recertified and holding down a job as a medication tech. Urban Ministry Center is helping him find housing, and he hopes to be off the streets in a few weeks.

“They get it,” he said of the officers. “They understand that I need a hand up, but I’m not asking for a handout.”

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