Police work to find shelter for homeless ahead of winter storm

The Wichita Eagle

A snow-covered blanket and an abandoned backpack mark the spot under a bridge where a 61-year-old homeless man died in December.

But while there was other bedding and a stash of food underneath the bridge at McLean and Seneca, no one was in sight during the height of Tuesday’s major snowstorm.

For Wichita police Officer Nate Schwiethale, it was one small sign of a mission accomplished – and possibly of people saved from a freezing death.

Schwiethale and the two other officers of the department’s HOT team have spent the last week tracking down and warning people of the coming storm. And with the city’s shelters packed to overflowing and few homeless people evident on the streets Tuesday, it appeared their efforts had succeeded.

In an average week, the HOT officers are busy, answering emergency calls involving homeless people and trying to help move them from life on the street to more secure housing, food and employment. Outreach to get them to shelter right away is a priority, but not the only one, Schwiethale said.

But with a potentially deadly winter storm situation, that becomes front and center and just about everything else has to wait, he said.

“We put those (other duties) off to the side and focus on outreach as much as we can,” Schwiethale said as the snow intensified. “We try to be proactive. If you waited until today, in my opinion, that’s almost too late.”

The officers couldn’t check out everywhere they wanted Tuesday. With 6 inches of snow on the ground, their standard-issue Crown Victoria police cruisers simply couldn’t go to some of the more remote places where homeless people hole up. But they were able to make pretty good sweeps of the downtown area where many of the homeless congregate during the day.

Volunteers from local churches fanned out to fill some of the gaps, Schwiethale said.

The HOT unit was started a year ago as a one-year pilot project to explore bringing a more humane approach to policing issues caused by homelessness. The idea behind it is that helping people find the shelter and services they need is better than carting them off to jail for minor infractions of city ordinances.

The pilot program ends this month, and the department is still evaluating whether to make it permanent. There’s a lot of support for it, said acting Deputy Chief Troy Livingston.

“What you’re trying to do is determine the optimum level of staffing,” for the HOT unit and throughout the department, to make sure it doesn’t leave gaps in policing elsewhere, Livingston said. “There is some value in keeping the beat officers from getting tied up on homeless issues.”

In the past year, the team has responded to about 7,000 calls and gotten 136 people off the street and into permanent or transitional housing, Schwiethale said.

They work closely with the city’s housing department to get eligible people into subsidized apartments.

But probably the most popular program is one to reunite the homeless with family members elsewhere who are willing to take them in.

Using donated funds, the HOT unit can arrange for a homeless person to get a bus ticket to where they have family or a job waiting, Schwiethale said.

“It’s probably one of our most popular programs because nobody else does it,” he said. “Even if a person wanted to do it, they probably couldn’t,” because of the logistical problems involved in confirming that the person actually has a place to go, and making sure the recipient doesn’t just take somebody for their money or cash in the bus ticket.

“We make sure the guy gets on the bus, so it’s all legit,” he said.

Sandy Swank, homeless services director for Interfaith Ministries, said the unit has been a huge help over the past year and forged a new relationship between the city’s homeless population and the Police Department.

In the past, the homeless “didn’t want anything to do with the police,” Swank said. “It was ‘stay away from them, they’re your enemy.’ They (the HOT officers) have changed that.”

She said Interfaith has worked closely with the officers to help get people off the street.

Treating them like people with problems instead of the problem itself has made a huge difference, she said.

“I understand they do a lot of things other people don’t do, but my God, they’re homeless,” she said. “They’re living in Wichita like anyone else. The difference is they don’t have any money.”