The Cheyenne Police Department has launched an initiative that’s meant to help the homeless get access to shelter and other services, and keep them out of jail. The cops and the one shelter in town are optimistic about the program. But various advocacy groups have major concerns. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.
WILLOW BELDEN: The initiative got started because of frustration with homeless people breaking the law. Business owners in downtown Cheyenne complained of people panhandling, drinking in public, urinating on the street, and trying to sleep in their businesses. Police Chief Brian Kozak says repeated arrests became the norm.
BRIAN KOZAK: A lot of people were getting jail sentences a day here, two days there, repeatedly. Someone might be in the court five times, and each time they get a day in jail.
BELDEN: Kozak says all that jail time is costing the city a lot of money. So last month, the Police Department created the Homeless Empowerment Action Team – or HEAT. The team consists of a few police officers and Robin Zimmer, the director of Cheyenne’s homeless shelter, the COMEA House. Together, they go around town and talk with homeless people.
KOZAK: We explain what the rules are in the city. For example, panhandling. It’s a state law that you cannot ask a passing car for money. You can’t camp in the city parks overnight. … You can’t be drunk in public, and you can’t drink in public either. And those are laws that if you do break, you’ll be arrested.
BELDEN: Kozak says they also tell people about the resources available to them – about the COMEA shelter, about help they can get with substance abuse problems, about medical services in the community. Kozak says the goal is to help homeless individuals become law-abiding citizens.
KOZAK: You know, we’re here to help you, but if you choose to continue to break the law, the consequences of course go up.
BELDEN: If people don’t agree to seek help, and continue to break the law, they could now face 30 days in jail, rather than just one or two.
I joined the HEAT team on a recent outing. As we drove through the Walmart parking lot, Robin Zimmer from the COMEA House and Officer Dan Long spotted a young woman with two dogs sitting on a curb. She had dreadlocks, a lip ring, and pants that had been patched many times over. A young man soon joined her. Their dogs lapped up water from a dented tin bowl as we approached.
DAN LONG: We’re just going around, talking to people about this new program we have. It’s called the Homeless Empowerment Action Team – Operation HEAT.
HOMELESS WOMAN: Oh yeah?
LONG: Have you heard of the COMEA Shelter?
HOMELESS WOMAN: I have dogs. I can’t go to the shelter.
ROBIN ZIMMER: But have you guys been through there for food boxes and stuff?
HOMELESS WOMAN: No, we haven’t been here long.
BELDEN: The homeless woman said she needed medical care, and Zimmer promised to take her to the emergency room. But the HEAT team was at a loss for where the couple could stay for the night, with their dogs.
That dilemma highlights problems that critics see with Operation HEAT. They argue that telling people there are plenty of resources available is misleading, because the resources aren’t available to everyone. You cannot stay at the shelter if you have pets, and you also can’t stay there if you’ve been drinking. COMEA does a breathalyzer on everyone. And then there’s another problem. As Linda Burt with the ACLU points out, shelter space is limited.
LINDA BURT: We have about 500 homeless people in Cheyenne, and we have about 75 beds.
BELDEN: Burt says that leaves homeless people with two options: break the law by camping out on city property, or leave town. And she says forcing them to make that choice is wrong.
So far, most people have chosen the first option: stay on the streets. Police Chief Brian Kozak says the majority of the individuals they’ve talked to have declined offers for assistance.
KOZAK: They do not want help. They want to be on the street.
BELDEN: Neil Donovan with the National Coalition for the Homeless says that’s a clue that the HEAT program might be misguided.
NEIL DONOVAN: I don’t believe that these people are saying that they don’t want help. What they’re saying is that how you define help and the resources that you attach to that help is not the type of help that they want or need.
BELDEN: Donovan says people may have had traumatic experiences at shelters elsewhere and may simply be too scared to go to COMEA.
DONOVAN: If you are psychotic; if you are clinically depressed; if you have raped or stabbed or assaulted in a shelter, the likelihood that you want to subject yourself to that is remote. So when somebody says, ‘You need to get off the street and go into a shelter,’ that really is not guidance that that person can accept.
BELDEN: Donovan adds that having a shelter that’s only available to people who are sober won’t get alcoholics off the street.
Robin Zimmer with COMEA says those are legitimate concerns. She’s hoping to develop an additional housing unit, where there would be no questions asked, and no breathalyzers administered – where people would have their own private rooms, to feel safer. Until she gets the money for the project, Zimmer is adding beds to the COMEA house. And she’s optimistic that through the HEAT program, she’ll be able to make inroads with the homeless community. She says sometimes inviting people to a shelter and offering to help them find work, rather than waiting for them to come on their own, can make all the difference.
ZIMMER: I really don’t know how many more people we’re going to find, or whether they’ll come to us for help. But I feel better knowing that we’ve connected with them.
BELDEN: The Police Department plans to assess the HEAT program at the end of the year and decide whether or not to continue it. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.