Solving Visalia’s homeless problem begins with ‘HOPE’
By Reggie Ellis
visalia – There is little agreement on what the most essential first step is in the effort to reduce homelessness. Some say its housing, others say jobs, a few say mental health and many say faith. But in Visalia, reducing homelessness all starts with HOPE.
Earlier this month, the Visalia Police Department announced the creation of the Homeless Outreach & Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team. The HOPE Team began as a pilot project in January 2016 to provide a more focused response to the homeless issue in the City of Visalia and became a permanent team in May 2017. The HOPE Team officers work closely with the City’s Code Enforcement to reduce the impact of homelessness on the community, reduce the impact of homeless related calls for service on patrol officers, and to develop longer term solutions for both the community at-large as well as the homeless population. The mission of the HOPE Team is to reduce homelessness in the City of Visalia by working with stakeholders to find long-term, supportive housing for homeless individuals through outreach and community education, and also to proactively address the public safety concerns and impacts related to homelessness.
Supervising Agent Andrew Swarthout oversees the three-man unit that includes two other officers, all with more than 10 years with the Visalia Police Department. The two officers split the city with Leroy Hickey patrolling south of Highway 198 and Nate Henry covering the city north of the highway. Swarthout said having a permanent team to address homelessness gives officers the time to do in-depth problem solving.
“When you’re on patrol you have multiple calls that are all based on priority, which limits your time at most calls,” Swarthout said. “By having the HOPE Team those officers can dedicate their time to one issue and dive deeper into each situation.”
Swarthout said the two most common calls regarding homelessness are to check on the welfare of an individual and trespassing.
Officer Nate Henry responded to a report of trespassing last Friday and found a man camped along the creek just north of Center Avenue between Burke Street and Ben Maddox Way. “Nate”, as he is called by the man, is on a first-name basis with most of Visalia’s homeless. Nate has met the man two to three times in the last year and a half and politely asked him to pack up his things and leave the property. As the man began to pack his things into a grocery cart, Officer Henry asked him if he needed anything to which he replied that he didn’t.
“The first question I usually ask is how long they have been homeless,” Officer Henry said. “The next question is if they need anything or if I can drop them off somewhere, like Mental Health, the rescue mission or a drug treatment program. They usually say no, but I always ask because a few have said yes.”
As the man began to roll his cart of belongings away, Officer Henry offered a bottled water, which were donated to the unit by a local business. The man declined several times before finally accepting the water. “Alright then, go get some bad guys,” he told the officer. After informing him of where he could not go from there, Officer Henry waits to make sure the mancompletely leaves the premises, even following him on foot around the corner.
Because most homeless people camp out in the back corners of private property, Agent Swarthout said the City’s Trespass Enforcement Program (TEP) is an essential piece to preventing property issues. He said property owners who sign up for the program authorize officers to enter private property without a warrant when they receive calls of trespassing. Property owners are also required to put up signs with specific wording provided by the department’s program.
“I used to think if I cited every [homeless] person for every little thing it would make it so uncomfortable they would stop doing it, but that didn’t work,” Officer Henry said. “Now I treat them with respect, try to get to know them. I get so much more cooperation by doing it this way.”
Through interactions like these, the HOPE Team has built its own database of homeless people. Each time the officers contact someone new they take a photograph of them and get their name. Even if someone gives the officer false information, which most don’t, the officer can run the photograph through a database to identify the individual.
“I usually take a photograph with them holding some of their property,” Officer Henry said. “We’ve even been able to recover things that were stolen from them and return them, so they don’t seem to mind.”
Agent Swarthout encourages residents to report ongoing homeless related issues directly to the HOPE officers during regular hours from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For locations south of Highway 198, contact Officer Leroy Hickey at (559)713-4421 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For locations north of Highway 198 contact Officer Nate Henry at (559) 713-4422 or via email at email@example.com.
Supervising Agent Andrew Swarthout can also be contacted at (559) 713-4160 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If an issue cannot wait for a HOPE officer and you need a police response, contact the Visalia Police Department Communications Center at either the non-emergency number of 734-8117 or 911 for emergencies.
“If a homeless person truly wants help we will do everything we can to help them,” Officer Henry said. “Some people choose to be homeless because they like the freedom to go and do what they want when they want. But some need help and might be too proud to ask for it.”
– Editor’s Note: This Part I of a two-part series on the City’s of Visalia’s effort to reduce homelessness through innovative programs.