February 15, 2002

Innovative Program Helping The Homeless

As the police van pulled up on the beach boardwalk in Pacific Beach, a homeless man was standing nearby. San Diego Police officer Larry Fixsen and County of San Diego Eligibility Technician Patti Haynes stepped out of the van to talk to him. After a few minutes, some forms were signed and the man climbed into the vehicle. No handcuffs. No heated words. No arrest. After many months of consideration, the man was ready to be taken to Volunteers of America, a downtown detoxification program for his alcohol addiction.

It's a scenario that has been played out many times since the innovative collaboration of law enforcement with clinicians and social service experts began in 1998. The Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) combines the resources and efforts of the San Diego Police Department, the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team and the County of San Diego in providing a humanistic approach towards improving the quality of life for homeless individuals. The team is assigned to work the Police Department's Central, Northern and Western Divisions.

The goal of HOT is to assist the chronic homeless to become productive members of society thereby reducing the financial and public health and safety burdens on our community.

Among the services provided to the homeless are field assessments for eligibility to public entitlements, crisis intervention, referrals, comprehensive case management, drug/alcohol rehabilitation placement, and psychiatric/medical treatment and placement. The team also does a collection and analysis of homeless demographical data. But maybe just as important is the building of relationships with clients and community organizations.

"Unfortunately when we went to take the client to the detox center, it was full. But due to our close relationship with them, they rarely turn us down. We were able to find a spot for him," said Fixsen.

The outreach team assessed 529 homeless persons last year, according to HOT data. The challenges to help these homeless improve their lives are not easy ones. First, it often takes many years before a client is able to stick by their decision to help themselves. "A good deal of them refuse services," he said. "We have to build a trust with them. And they have to want to do it."

Another challenge is that many homeless need to acquire medical and other documentation to get needed services. Most suffer from mental disabilities and/or alcohol and drug problems. So a lot of monitoring and follow-up is done, according to Fixsen.

That is the case with Calvin, a 63-year old man with a mental disability who was once a hard core alcoholic before quitting several years ago. Often he goes several days without eating, so he does receive food vouchers from the team. He had some legal problems which have prevented him from getting needed services, such as a place to live. "We've been working with him for two years," said Haynes. "We were able to assist him with applying for food stamps and general relief. We were in the process of getting documentation for him so he can receive SSI, but he got arrested."

After working with the homeless for a few year, Fixsen said he has obtained quite a bit of knowledge about them. "The homeless in the County are generally from other parts of the country," he said. "Most are single, white males. Some of the places they often hang out at are parks, beaches, under bridges, in the downtown area, in canyons, and the San Diego River Bed.

The team and the community now are very familiar with each other. Trust has developed and that is helping produce the benefits the team was brought together for. Mainly, getting the homeless services before they require hospitalization, and early intervention services for those who don't know where services are.

Another member of the team, San Diego Police officer Heidi Hawley said doing homeless outreach in quite a challenge for her, adding she often deals with the same clients over and over again. But there is always hope the homeless will see the light. And the team's efforts have brought the community and police closer together to work on the issue, she said. "Strictly enforcement just doesn't do it."

For further information on the Homeless Outreach Team, contact Patricia Haynes at (858) 490-3850.

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