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Outreach team training to work with Wichita homeless

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, at 9:49 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, at 6:23 a.m.

Rather than writing a homeless person a ticket for offenses such as panhandling or jaywalking, a special Wichita police team will try to get that person connected with appropriate services.

The three-person Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT, set up by the police department last month will direct the homeless to such providers as United Methodist Open Door or the Salvation Army.

The approach is patterned after the HOT program in Colorado Springs. Wednesday, Colorado Springs’ three HOT officers were in Wichita to begin 2 ½ days of training for about 50 people, including law enforcement officers and providers.

Like Colorado Springs, Wichita will send all calls about a homeless person violating an ordinance to the outreach team, which is made up of two officers and Sgt. Brett Stull.

A team member will establish contact with the homeless person to build trust, with the aim of getting that person some help, Stull said.

“We’re not out here to take everyone to jail,” Stull said.

A homeless person still would be arrested for such offenses as assault, but Stull said police can use some discretion for lesser offenses.

Stull said just writing a ticket can easily lead to an endless cycle: no-show for a court date, a warrant, another arrest and time in jail that costs taxpayers money.

“We’re not getting anything accomplished,” he said.

Brett Iverson, an officer with the Colorado Springs team who is helping with the training, said it takes a minimum of 75 contacts with a person in the general homeless population to establish trust. For the chronic homeless, he said it can take more than 300 contacts.

Colorado Springs’ program took effect in 2009. The city has seen its homeless population drop from more than 600 to 150 or 200.

One of the reasons Colorado Springs’ outreach team is doing the training for Wichita is the two cities are similar in size and homeless numbers. A 2011 count found Wichita had 550 homeless.

A big part of the training is to increase cooperation between police and those who provide service for the providers.

Colorado Springs ran into resistance when it first began its program. When an outreach team officer went to a soup kitchen and asked how many homeless people it served, Iverson said the security guard demanded the officer get a search warrant.

Wichita providers and police say they generally have worked well together.

“But you can always improve cooperation,” said Open Door Executive Director Deann Smith, who is attending the training. Her organization is one of the city’s largest one-stop service sites for homeless, located at 402 E. Second St.

“Police see the homeless at times that we don’t,” she said, “so coordination between service agencies and the police department is very important.

“This training is good in that it helps the police department to establish a culture of a way to approach homelessness. It’s not an end-all, but it’s a beginning.”

Wichita police officer Nate Schwiethale, one of the two officers on the outreach team, has spent his 11-year career with the department working the downtown and Old Town areas – including the last five years with the community policing unit – and has regularly attended the homeless coalition meetings.

“I could have easily taken homeless to jail a dozen times last week,” said Schwiethale, who hands out socks to the homeless to help build a rapport. “I didn’t. We caught some guys panhandling and I told them, ‘Look, let me cut you a break, are you looking for work?’ They said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

Schwiethale learned that some of the men were trained as welders, bricklayers and a fork-lift operator. So instead of writing them $100 tickets, he drove them around to temporary-work agencies to fill out applications.

“A lot of these people haven’t been homeless all their lives,” he said. “A lot of them have stories, a lot of them have skills. But you’re not going to get that unless you break down the walls.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or at rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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