Homeless Issues and Tolerance
1. Briefly describe the structure of your program.
Although not a crime, being homeless may be the end result of many underlying social problems which may lead to criminal activity. Officers are now encouraged by policy to consider alternatives to arrest to resolve problems involving the homeless. Through a COPS Problem-Solving Grant, community oriented police officers began to work with the Broward Outreach Center, a local facility for homeless people who want to become self-reliant. As a result of this effort, a municipal ordinance was re-drafted to address the issue of sleeping in public. In a first of it's kind ordinance, officers are now mandated to offer a person an alternative to arrest for sleeping in public. That alternative is for the person to check his or herself into Broward Outreach Center for the homeless. It has been determined that simply by making arrests, problems associated with being homeless will not be solved. By giving the homeless "mandated," exposure to the Outreach Center where they are provided the necessities of life until they can become self-sufficient, it is hoped that the homeless population in Hollywood will decrease.
This working relationship with Broward Outreach has produced another success as well. Rotating church groups that were using public property to feed the homeless on weekends are now using the Outreach Center to conduct the feedings. Previously very large groups of the homeless congregated on public property to attend these meals which generated numerous order maintenance type complaints. These accomplishments are a direct result of the department's new policy of handling homeless person complaints.
2. When was the program created and why?
The downtown area of Hollywood has been plagued for years with scores of homeless people who congregate and sleep in the park during the day and night. Beginning in July of 1998, the Community Oriented Police Unit began looking for alternatives to arrest to handle the homeless problem.
To better understand the problem, one must know the geography of the area. Young Circle Park is located in the heart of Hollywood. It contains 12.6 acres of land which is landscaped, and a bandshell where many local concerts are held. The park divides U.S. 1, a heavily traveled north/south corridor in the area. There are many businesses around the circle including restaurants, art studios, banks and a supermarket. There is an upscale residential neighborhood located just to the east of downtown. Many of the homeless eat at a soup kitchen operated by a local church Monday through Friday. On the weekends however, local churches rotate eating hours on public property in the downtown area. These eating times create many problems when as many as 100 homeless people will gather to be fed.
The merchants and residents have complained that residents are afraid to frequent the businesses and use the park due to feeling uncomfortable with so many homeless people in the area. Because of the large number of homeless, there were many order maintenance problems such as alcohol violations, littering, urinating in public, etc.
Personnel from the Community Oriented Policing Unit began to look at the different municipal ordinances which dealt with these order maintenance types of crimes. The ordinance concerning sleeping in the open was a civil infraction only. This meant that when someone was observed sleeping in public, a notice to appear was written and the defendant could return to sleep. The police could not solve the problem nor satisfy the complainant.
Advocates for the homeless were diligent in their opposition. Meetings were held between representatives from the police department, the Vice-Mayor of Hollywood, city of Hollywood legal staff, the director of the Broward Outreach Center, and Broward County Legal Aid, who represents many homeless people in legal defense. A compromise was reached in which a person detained for sleeping in public must be offered the chance to check into the Broward Outreach Center before an arrest will be made. Everyone involved agreed that exposure of these individuals to the center is the best chance at reducing the number of homeless people in the community.
Another success of this program was solving the problem of weekend eating times on public property. A meeting was held at the police department with representatives from ten (10) of the churches involved in the weekend meals and the director of the Broward Outreach Center. The director agreed to allow the meals to be held at his facility, but there was a problem. In order not to violate a city ordinance, no walk-up traffic could be received at the Center. This was put in place when the facility was built to lessen the impact on the surrounding community. A compromise was reached. A van was donated for the transportation and drivers volunteered. A route and schedule was devised to pick up the homeless at numerous locations and return them after the meal. This eliminated the large gatherings that generated the complaints. Counselors were on hand at the Center to provide assistance for anyone in need who intends to make an effort to become self-sufficient.
3. How do you measure the programís effectiveness?
As the program is relatively new there is insufficient statistical information available to determine the total effectiveness of the program. Many in the community including advocates for the homeless are excited about the involvement of the police department and there have been numerous successes already with individuals referred to the Center who are now self-sufficient.
4. How is the program financed?
This program was developed at no additional costs to the city. It could not work without the assistance of the Broward Outreach Center which requested no additional funds from the city to assist with these efforts.
5. How is the community involved in the program, if at all? How has the community responded to the program?
This program will not continue to work without community support and involvement. As stated above, new ordinances and police procedures were developed with the input of community advocates, city government, and the police department itself. Numerous churches are involved with the weekend feedings. Now instead of feeding people in public and the prevailing weather conditions, the meals are served indoors in a controlled environment. They can wash their hands, use the bathroom, and eat with some dignity. Counselors are also available for assistance. The Center itself is financed primarily through donations and grants made available with community support. The program has gained the attention of local newspapers who wrote very favorable articles. Being homeless is a social problem that is a concern for everyone in the community and will not be solved without total involvement.
6. What are the major lessons learned that would be helpful for others trying to implement a similar program?
One must come to realize that the traditional efforts of law enforcement will not solve the crimes associated with the homeless. Working toward solving the homeless problem itself, or a more attainable goal of lessening the number of homeless in the city is the more appropriate response. How many homeless people actually rehabilitate and become self-sufficient after being jailed for minor offenses such as loitering, alcohol violations, urinating in public, etc.? How many homeless people rehabilitate after being exposed to a professional facility that has the expertise and resources to assist them in becoming self-sufficient? It is our belief in Hollywood that exposure to a professional facility should be the first choice, and jail a last resort.
7. What specific advice do you have for mayors interested in replicating a program such as yours?
Every community with a homeless problem needs a facility that makes extensive efforts for the homeless to become self-sufficient. Band-aid approaches such as soup kitchens and church feedings only serve as a temporary fix, not a solution. A facility such as the Broward Outreach Center is an invaluable asset. The Center will only admit persons who will remain alcohol and drug free. They provide whatever assistance is necessary for homeless people who are serious about becoming self-sufficient. This is the type of approach needed and it is proving to work in our community as the number of successes increases.For more information, please contact:
Sgt. Jim Weatherford
J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
1620 Eye Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006
Telephone (202) 293-7330, FAX (202) 293-2352