Earlier this year, Wichita police established a three-person team to help homeless people and get them off the streets.
Instead of writing tickets for such offenses as panhandling or jaywalking, the Homeless Outreach Team was set up in January to direct the homeless to providers such as the United Methodist Open Door or the Salvation Army.
But the city’s own laws have hindered their efforts.
The city prohibits camping in parks, but there’s nothing on the books that addresses other city property.
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“The city has a lot more property than parks, like under the bridges,” said Sgt. Brett Stull, who heads up the team.
So at the request of the police, the city is proposing an ordinance that prohibits camping on any public property or right of way in the city, unless the person has a permit. The City Council will take up that proposal Tuesday.
There is an ongoing problem of people camping overnight and defecating on city property, primarily in the downtown area and around the Central Library, according to a city document.
In addition to making camping illegal, it would give Stull’s team the authority to remove homeless people and get them some help
On the face of it, it might appear that the city is only trying to make it harder on the homeless. That’s not so, Stull said.
“This would allow us to go over there and get them to the kind of services they need,” he said. “We give them a period of time to clear their (camping) stuff out.”
The law would also help ensure better safety for the public and enhance health conditions, he added.
“You go down by the river with your family, you want them to feel safe,” Stull said. “Some (homeless) can get kind of aggressive.”
But the law’s intent also is a means of assisting the homeless.
The police department has concluded that an alternative to traditional law enforcement methods is necessary if actual help is to be provided to a population that inherently distrusts the police.
The team’s approach is patterned after a similar program established in Colorado Springs, which sent a team in February to help instruct Wichita’s providers and law enforcement.
Like Colorado Springs, Wichita sends all calls about homeless people violating an ordinance to the outreach team. The purpose isn’t to take a person to jail but to make repeated contact with him or her and build trust, Stull said.
“That can take time,” Stull said. “It’s a long process. We’ll help some people, they’ll go back to what they were doing before, and then we start over again. It’s a lot of work.”
The HOT program has been busy, according to police statistics.
From February through May, the team has made 728 contacts with homeless people. It has referred 184 homeless people to providers or services, and 28 were placed in a substance abuse inpatient program.
Sometimes a homeless person is far from home and just needs a way to get home. To that end, the team has provided seven bus tickets to reunite homeless people with their families over the four-month stretch.
Twenty homeless people have been picked up off the streets and placed in the care of family or friends in stable homes.
The proposed ordinance calls for a fine not to exceed $500 and/or jail time not to exceed 30 days. But it also says the Municipal Court judge has the discretion to order an offender to perform between 10 and 40 hours of community service in lieu of a fine.
“All this ordinance would do is enable us to be able to do something to get those people some help,” Stull said. “Even if they’re saying, ‘I don’t want any help. Leave me alone. I hate you.’ ”