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Officer of the year works to help the homeless

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, at 7:57 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at 9 a.m.

Dinner out for Nate and Amy Schwiethale is often interrupted by his cellphone ring.

As a Wichita police officer on a small special unit, he’s on call 24/7 to respond to requests to help the city’s homeless.

He hadn’t taken a vacation day since the unit began operation in February – until taking a half day Thursday. And even then he still took calls and was on the computer checking on work.

But this was all his idea.

His passion to help the homeless led to the police adopting a three-officer Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT. The team works to direct homeless people to providers that deal with specific needs, whether that’s a meal, clothing or mental health.

Or a place to live. The team has used community resources to find more than 100 homeless people a place to live. Another 25 homeless people have found jobs through the team’s efforts.

A month after the team started, a fourth officer was added to help ease the load.

Friday, Schwiethale was named the department’s officer of the year. He quickly shared the honor, including his team members – Sgt. Brett Stull and officers Greg Feuerborn and Danny Taylor.

“I wish I could break this plaque and give a piece to them,” Schwiethale. “I had the vision, but I needed some dedicated officers.”

The team is an all-volunteer deal. It has to be that way because the time commitment is consuming. All police calls, all concerns with homeless activity are routed to a team member to handle.

Thus, there are vacation days spent working and interrupted date nights.

“I just tell him to go do what he does – help people,” Amy Schwiethale said of her high school sweetheart, who she met at Maize High.

An assistant professor of performing arts at Wichita State University, she said her schedule can get pretty hectic, too.

“We support each other,” she said. “What he does is so Nate. It’s inspiring to live with him. Besides, I have a crush on him.”

Since Nate Schwiethale joined the force in 2001, his beat has always been downtown. That’s also where you’ll find most of the city’s homeless people.

He talked to the homeless people, got to know them and became convinced there had to be a better way of dealing with them than just writing a ticket for jaywalking that they would never be able to pay or hauling them to jail.

“At the end of the day, I joined law enforcement to work with the people on my beat,” he said. “It just so happens some of those people are homeless.”

Sometimes the homeless are just people stranded in Wichita who need a way home. Once the HOT unit confirms such a person has someone waiting for them, a bus ticket is purchased to get them home.

Area businesses, churches and individuals contribute money to pay for those bus tickets, Schwiethale said. So far 25 people have used one of the tickets.

“It’s all of us working together,” he said.

Building a relationship with homeless people is important because often they are wary of the police.

“But once you break through with one, there’s a domino effect and they’ll see their buddy is trusting us to help them,” Schwiethale said.

Patience is required. It can take up to 85 contacts with a homeless person before that trust can be reached, he added.

HOT has made more than 2,000 contacts with homeless people so far this year.

But don’t think for a minute Schwiethale is only about numbers. He knows the names of the homeless.

He can tell you it was Theresa Swearingen he found a home for in March after she had been living under a bridge for more than 1 1/2 years.

And he can tell you that he was able to get an apartment in June for Kenneth Mathews, who had been homeless for more than 20 years in Wichita.

His community efforts don’t stop with HOT. He has been a big brother in the Big Brother Big Sister program for eight years.

“People are important,” Schwiethale said.

Two other annual awards were presented at City Hall by the police department.

•  Don Langford, a planning analyst since 2006, was named the department’s civilian employee of the year. Besides his work projects, he also was selected by the committee for his efforts in combating drunken driving.

On Oct. 11, 1997, his daughter, Summer Langford, was killed by a drunk driver at Second Street and Seneca when she was driving home after completing a shift as a Wichita police officer.

So he’s out there at DUI checkpoints providing hot dogs and soft drinks to officers. He helps put ribbons on patrol cars that remind people not to drink and drive.

“It’s something that’s important to us,” said Langford, who was joined at the ceremony by his wife, Collette.

He received the award on their 44th wedding anniversary.

• Wichita’s Salvation Army was given the Cooper/McKee volunteer of the year award for the work it provides with its emergency social services. So far in 2013, the organization has helped 14,000 people and responded to more than 30 events.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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