Police program clears homeless infractions in exchange for shelter stays

By Gary Warth from The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Homeless people who face a ticket or arrest by San Diego police officers are being offered a chance to have the infraction cleared if they agree to stay for 30 days in one of the city’s large tented bridge shelters.

San Diego police Capt. Scott Wahl said the new program could help stabilize lives and get people connected with services, while also allowing officers to enforce laws on the street.

Homeless Outreach Team member Deputy Aaron Bert looks for a person who was living under a bridge and had asked for an appointment to talk with them about getting help. (John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
Homeless Outreach Team member Deputy Aaron Bert looks for a person who was living under a bridge and had asked for an appointment to talk with them about getting help. (John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

“I feel like we’ve started this division because we wanted to be a positive impact on ending homelessness,” Wahl said about the department’s neighborhood policing division that was formed last year. The division includes homeless outreach teams and officers who enforce quality-of-life laws that often involve homeless people.

“We’re all trying to do our part in ending homelessness, and we want to do it in a way that’s compassionate, but also has accountability,” he said.

The incentive is a revision to a similar effort that began in July. Police officers last summer began offering shelter beds in lieu of citations to homeless people who had been contacted for encroachment, illegal lodging, littering or other minor quality-of-life infractions.

Wahl said about 300 people took the offer, but there was a problem.

“We noticed that 67 percent of people blew out the back door on the very first day,” he said about people who took the offer to avoid citations but had no intention of staying sheltered. “They’re circumventing the criminal justice system intentionally.”

The revised approach still offers shelter beds in lieu of citations, but the tickets aren’t torn up quite so soon. If somebody leaves the shelter before 30 days, the citation will be enforced.

Wahl sees the incentive as having a two-fold benefit. While addressing quality-of-life infractions in neighborhoods, it also gives homeless people a month to learn about programs that could help them find housing and overcome issues related to their homelessness.

“They can still go outside,” Wahl said about the shelter. “It’s not jail. They’re still free to come and go, but they have to be in at night.”

Under the program, 50 of the 128 beds at the new shelter run by the Alpha Project are reserved for homeless people brought in by officers. The shelter opened at 17th Street and Imperial Avenue in November, and the police incentive program began shortly afterwards.

The shelter was the site of the Dec. 28 fatal shooting of Alpha Project security guard Ernest Buchanan. Police are still investigating the shooting and have released no new information.

Bob McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project, said the 50 beds are filled most nights, and the incentive program has shown some success after working out a few early kinks. One homeless person has found housing after being brought in by officers in the program, he said.

The shelter incentive is an outgrowth of a program the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT, has been conducting for several years. Officers who encounter someone who is homeless may offer the person one of 50 beds that have been reserved for the department at Father Joe’s Villages.

Only one in 10 homeless people police encounter on downtown streets accept the offer of a shelter bed in a non-enforcement encounter, Wahl said, a situation he admits is frustrating.

He and others say they have seen better retention for those who do accept the officer of a shelter bed under the revised program, but it’s still too early to judge whether it’s effective.

In the first few weeks, Wahl said 46 percent of people brought in under the new program walked away before the 30 days were up. He acknowledged that’s a better outcome than the 67 percent who left under the earlier program but wondered if the cold and wet weather might have motivated people to stay longer.

McElroy said he believes people have been staying longer in recent weeks, and he sees some potential  for the program.

“That month gives us an opportunity to find out who they are, and they can find out who we are,” he said.

McElroy had reservations in the beginning. He said some people who were brought in had kits to use heroin and methamphetamine because they had not been properly searched, and others showed up with many more bags of possessions than are allowed inside the shelter.

McElroy said better communication with law enforcement ironed out those problems. In another issue, he said people in the program originally were not offered the same services as others in the shelter, but rather limited services from the county. McElroy said he made it clear in meetings with county officials that people in the facility would have access all of its resources.

“If they come in, they have the same access to our case manager and housing navigators,” he said. “We made it clear… we’re not changing any of our programs.”

Some advocates for people experiencing homelessness have expressed a few concerns about the incentive program, noting that reserving shelter beds for people brought in by the HOT teams reduces the number available for others who want to get in. Homeless advocate Michael McConnell said people who walk away from the shelter before the 30 days are over could find that prosecutors use that information against them in court.

The new incentive program is one of a few changes that have been made to the Police Department’s outreach efforts since the neighborhood policing division was formed. Wahl said changes include expanding the homeless outreach teams with four county Health and Human Service Agency specialists and three Psychiatric Emergency Response Team members who patrol with officers daily.

Earlier this year, two case workers were added to specifically work with people who accept offers of a bed at Father Joe’s Villages, and Wahl said he is hopeful that the change will lead to a greater success rate for homeless people who accept offers of shelter beds from officers.McClatchy-Tribune News Service