How Local Law Enforcement Officers Are Reaching Out To Help The Most Chronic Of Homeless Cases
Southern California is experiencing a housing crisis. And many communities are looking to build more shelters and affordable housing. But for people experiencing homelessness, what does it take to get off the streets and through those doors? To find out, KVCR reporter Danielle Fox spent a day with a homeless outreach team in San Bernardino.
Mike Jones: Could stop it.
Jennifer: It's a decision that's either going to kill me...
Jennifer: Or it's going to help me. And I'm not ready to take that chance, you know what I mean?
That’s San Bernardino Deputy Sheriff Mike Jones. He’s with the Sheriff's HOPE outreach team for the homeless. He’s talking with Jennifer outside of her tent about getting housing.
Jennifer: I need to go back to work. I need to get a vehicle, go back to work. I'll be out of this frickin place in a heartbeat. I can’t stand being out here.
Jennifer’s been homeless for almost three years. She hasn’t been able to find work and lost her kids to foster care. I’m not using her last name because she’s looking for a job.
Jones: Do you just have the physical health or do you have mental health history?
Jennifer: The streets make me go crazy.
The reason Jones just asked her about her mental health history is that to get permanent supportive housing, you have to meet certain criteria. You have to be chronically homeless — someone who’s experienced homelessness for at least a year, or repeatedly — which Jennifer has. You also have to be struggling with a disabling condition, like mental health, a substance use disorder, or physical disability.
Jones: If it’s mental health, it doesn’t have to be that it’s been diagnosed forever, you know, you can’t tell me that it’s not depressing living out on the street.
Jones takes Jennifer’s number down to call 2-1-1 to find someone to follow up with her about housing.
Jennifer: Thank you.
Jones: I'll let you know later today.
Jennifer: Alright, thank you.
Of the 16 people we met throughout the morning, Jennifer was one of two who was taking steps towards getting housing. Most people were hesitant.
Michael Sweitzer: I don’t think it’s so much oh they want to be homeless but how would any of us interact if someone just came up and said oh here we have this great new big thing come with us right now?
That’s Michael Sweitzer. He’s a program manager with the San Bernardino Department of Behavioral Health and also goes out with the HOPE outreach team. And he says a lot of people don’t realize why someone experiencing homelessness might feel unsettled about finding housing.
It can take around 15 to 20 contacts for someone homeless to accept help.
Sweitzer: Coming back and continuing to engage them and treat them like human beings starts to kind of break that wall down.
Many people experiencing homelessness have faced a lot of broken promises — maybe from friends, places of worship, schools, the list goes on. While many people are well-intentioned, they don’t realize how challenging the housing process is when they offer to help. It’s tough finding a program that works for someone.
And once they qualify, it’s not as simple as just picking up the key to the front door. You need a birth certificate, ID, and other documents, which some people need to track down.
Deputy Jones says it’s a lot more complicated than the typical news headline we see.
Jones: You know we’re going to put 5 million dollars towards housing for the homeless, well to get the housing there are several other factors, so it’s quite a process.
A process that a lot of people we met today were uncertain about. Like Sarah.
Jones: Want to go to a shelter?
Sarah: Do you guys have a shelter?
Sarah’s been homeless for three years. She’s gotten word that her ex got out of jail and says he was arrested because he tried to kill her. I’m also only using her first name for safety reasons.
Deputy Jones and a behavioral health social worker make some calls and find out that there’s a shelter bed available. But Sarah decides not take it.
Sarah: All the homies out here, I know they’re a little shady, but at the end of the day, I promise you if he gets out, they’ll protect me.
It’s a little hard to hear but she says she feels safer on the streets with a couple of men who have been acting as her bodyguards. That they’ll protect her more than a temporary shelter.
Deputy Jones takes her phone number and says he’ll follow up about getting her housing. And he tells her to call if she changes her mind.
Jones: I think a lot of times you know when we talk about homeless we have the myths that people say that you know oh these people don't want help. Well I have a very different theory doing it for five years and seeing the over 1,500 that we've been able to get housing for. Clearly shows they want help. But it's building that relationship with people and stuff like that, you know, until they get the help that they need.
Sarah’s the last person the HOPE team meets with for today’s rounds of outreach. But tomorrow, they’ll be back. Hoping to end a chain of broken promises.
For KVCR News, I’m Danielle Fox.