San Antonio Police Approach to Homelessness Shifting from Punitive to Helpful

Summer Muniz had been living under a West Side overpass, strung out on drugs, jobless, and had a warrant out for her arrest due to unpaid fines. The week before, a man had stolen her husband’s wallet, which held the couple’s only forms of identification (a fire had already devoured their birth certificates and social security cards earlier that year). Earlier that day, Muniz discovered she was five months pregnant with a baby girl. She was certain she’d have to give the baby up for adoption. A pair of middle-aged San Antonio Police Department officers walked up and crouched down beside her and asked how they could help.

help not handcuffsWithin days, Muniz was seen by an OB-GYN with her newly-acquired Medicaid insurance, sleeping in a dorm-like shelter bed, enrolled in a detox program, and filling out paperwork to get a new ID. The officers had taken her husband to a hospital after learning his leg was seriously infected. He signed up for Medicaid to pay for an unexpected surgery. Meanwhile, the officers found Muniz a stroller and crib, and helped her land a temp job. By the time she gave birth to her daughter four months later, Muniz and her husband were living in their own apartment, off drugs and had reliable incomes.

Muniz isn’t the only person who’s been pulled out of homelessness with the help of the veteran cops.

In fact, ever since officers Monty McCann and Joe Farris formed SAPD’s Homeless Outreach Positive Encounters (HOPE) team two years ago, they’ve seen dozens of people navigate their way out of addiction, mental health crises and homelessness.

It’s a kind of outreach relatively unheard of in San Antonio. Aside from their two-person team, there are about six other people in the city whose sole job is to seek out and build relationships with the homeless, in hopes of eventually linking them with needed services.

Despite the city’s ambitious goals, the number of “chronically homeless” individuals — people who have been without housing for more than a year — living on San Antonio streets has only gone up over the past decade. McCann and Farris, who have been on the force for nearly 25 years apiece, have watched first-hand as the city’s laws to crack down on homelessness cycle the same folks through the courts and spit them right back onto the street where they began. They say it’s clearly a broken system.

Currently, the city has no comprehensive plan to end homelessness. In the past, many felt the directive was basically for police to arrest homelessness out of existence. But in recent years, as cops discovered their arrests did little to fix the problem, SAPD has turned more toward advocacy and away from reactionary arrests and ticket-writing. Longtime homeless advocates, previously critical of SAPD’s handling of the homeless, say this new approach has already begun to disrupt the feedback loop of chronic homelessness for some.

In February 2005, a month after then-Mayor Ed Garza approved the city’s ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness, the San Antonio City Council met to discuss what they called a preventative strategy. Council eventually voted on new city rules that did more to criminalize homelessness than to actually help the destitute. The four ordinances, penned by then downtown councilman Roger Flores, would make it a crime to sit or lie down on a sidewalk, urinate in public, camp in public, or “aggressively” solicit for money. Those who disobeyed would be stuck with a fine of up to $500. Flores admitted the goal was to help downtown business owners.

City leaders knew – or should have known – that San Antonio already didn’t have enough shelter space for the city’s homeless population. It was one of the findings a city-commissioned study unveiled in the process of crafting San Antonio’s ten-year plan to end homelessness. Only former Councilwoman Patti Radle saw the irony of shooing homeless people off the streets just as city leaders were learning how few options they had.

“We were acknowledging that homeless people did not have alternatives, and then we were punishing the homeless for behavior that they could not help,” Radle told Justin Cook, a St. Mary’s University law student who eventually penned an article for the university’s law journal, The Scholar, that concluded two of the city’s four new ordinances cracking down on behavior associated with homelessness were unconstitutional.

“It is impossible for a homeless person in San Antonio to avoid committing a crime in order to satisfy the basic human need for sleep,” Cook argued. “Forcing an innocent person into making such a choice is both cruel and unusual.”

SAPD officers started churning out citations across the city, and San Antonio’s homeless population started drowning in tickets and fines they couldn’t hope to pay. After paying them off through community service or time in jail, they’d often return to the streets, where it was almost inevitable they’d get more tickets and fines for breaking the same rules.

By 2014, SAPD was writing an average of 6,300 citations a year for violations of these four city laws directed at the homeless and poor. An investigation by the Current that year discovered one homeless man who had received more than 1,000 citations alone. By 2015, when the city’s ten-year plan was supposed to have “ended chronic homelessness,” the number of chronically homeless people had only grown. In 2005, 16 percent of the city’s 1,600 homeless population were considered chronically homeless. By 2015, chronically homeless people accounted for about a quarter of the nearly 2,800 people living on the streets or in shelters.

“Be creative.” “Think outside the box.” Those were the only two instructions McCann and Farris remember being given when first asked to run the department’s two-man HOPE team in 2015.

The two officers spent the first year learning about the city’s homeless safety net by meeting with every organization that works in the field, and getting to know most of downtown’s chronically homeless population, business owners, city staffers working to craft a new homelessness plan, and fellow officers familiar with the issue. They tried to find the biggest roadblocks keeping chronically homeless people from seeing a doctor, accepting drug detox, or moving into a shelter. They heard from nonprofits struggling to connect with resistant clients or shelter staffers tired of breaking up fights or finding used needles in their cramped facilities.

What they also found was a system brimming with needy people and organizations wanting to help them — but no simple way to bring the two together.

The two officers decided they could act as a sort of trail guide for people looking for a way off the streets. They’d regularly check in with people living downtown to make sure they made appointments or showed up to court. They’d accompany people to a detox center, shelter or social services office to help them fill out paperwork (a surprising number of the city’s homeless population are illiterate, they discovered) or explain any confusing parts of the process that could make a person give up out of frustration. Some of the people they helped relapsed or returned to the streets, but others have since graduated from rehab, landed full-time jobs, or found permanent housing.

Two years in, the officers are already filling longtime gaps in the city’s network of homeless services, like with their ID recovery program.

Every Tuesday, the HOPE team holds office hours in the lobby of SAPD’s downtown headquarters to meet with people who don’t have any form of identification. For the homeless, it’s a common problem — perhaps their ID was stolen while they slept in a park, forgotten on the bus, taken by an officer during an arrest and never returned. According to local service providers, it’s the number one reason so many people are stuck in the cycle of homelessness.

“It’s a chicken and the egg scenario,” Farris said. “You need a driver’s license to apply for a birth certificate, a birth certificate to get a social security card, and a social security card to get a driver’s license.” Without any of these, he adds, it’s near impossible to apply for any type of social service help — from food stamps to maternity care to housing assistance. You certainly can’t apply for a job. It’s a vicious cycle the HOPE team wants to disrupt.

Their fix? Make their own ID. At police headquarters, the officers use a person’s fingerprint to pull up their criminal background (for the homeless, it’s rare to not have one), snap a photo of the person with an iPhone, and cobble together a DIY ID on paper stamped with the SAPD seal. They sign it and take the client to get a copy of their birth certificate at a city office building down the street using the new ID. Farris and McCann wait with the person in the winding line of other people applying for birth certificates or passports until its their turn at the front window. Most of the office staff know the two officers well by now, and greet them with a warm smile and nod as they look over their document. The men have an agreement with the staffers to accept this unusual piece of paper as a proof of a person’s identity.

With a birth certificate, a person can easily apply for a new driver’s license the same day. And just like that, their ID problems are solved. Houston and San Antonio’s police departments appear to be the only ones in the country that offer this kind of fix. Bill Hubbard, director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, the agency that manages the city’s federal homeless grant money, believes the ID program couldn’t work without HOPE.

HOPE used SAPD’s crisis intervention training — a program that teaches officers how to detect signs of mental illness and interact with someone who may be going through a mental health crisis — as a model. Originally dubbed “hug-a-thug” training by skeptical officers, SAPD’s crisis intervention program has received national praise for linking offenders to mental health treatment at the county’s Center for Health Care Services, rather than tossing them in jail. SAPD Chief William McManus made the training mandatory in 2010. Few people are calling it names anymore.

McManus and Farris were some of the first to embrace crisis training. Still, despite the fact that some 70 percent of the people who are taken to the city’s mental health facility by police are homeless, SAPD’s crisis training doesn’t instruct officers or clinicians on how to respond to homeless people.

“If you’re homeless, you’re in crisis,” McCann says. “The mere state of homelessness is traumatic. It needs to be treated that way.”

Mental health experts agree. “Homelessness can strike a different kind of crisis within a person,” says Amanda Miller, a psychologist with the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, a group of county mental health clinicians that accompany officers responding to a 911 call that may involve a mental health crisis. For instance, she says, living in a perpetually unstable environment can throw off a person’s orientation — people often miss appointments because they lose track of time or forget what day it is. They may not remember to take their medication or may miss a good night’s sleep. It’s an environment that seems to work directly against a person’s mental health.

“Stability is key to mental health recovery…or any kind of recovery,” Miller says. “But you don’t get stability when you’re homeless.”

There’s already one significant, measurable change. In the past year, SAPD officers have written a total of 1,861 tickets for the four laws that most often impact homeless people. Compare that to 2014, when cops wrote around 6,300 tickets for breaking those same laws.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

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