KANSAS CITY — Government, law enforcement, and social service officials in metro Kansas City, are exploring a new way to combat chronic homelessness with an approach that has shown promise in Wichita and elsewhere.
Through the program, communities establish a Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) within the police department. Rather than repeatedly writing tickets for nuisance violations, HOT officers work with community agencies to address the underlying problems that lead to a life on the streets.
“You are not going to arrest yourself out of homelessness,” Officer Nate Schwiethale of the Wichita Police Department said Friday during a presentation here at the offices of the Mid-America Regional Council.
At the invitation of the Homelessness Task Force of Greater Kansas City, Schwiethale and Officer Greg Feuerborn briefed an audience of about 40 attendees, including officers from the police departments in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan.
The two Wichita officers are part of a three-member Homeless Outreach Team, which the police department is piloting this year.
Advocates of the approach credit the idea to the police department in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Local proponents, including Kimiko Black Gilmore, assistant city manager in KCMO, said they hope to schedule a two-day HOT training program locally by the end of the year.
As part of that broader strategy, the task force later this month is bringing in a national consultant on homelessness system change.
‘Social worker with a uniform’
The Wichita officers described a carrot-and-stick approach that that, for instance, offers a ride to a detox program as an alternative to a citation for public intoxication.
If need be, the officers said, given the relationships they have built with social service providers, they can convince a shelter or housing complex to take someone they might otherwise reject.
Essentially, Feuerborn said, “You are a social worker with a uniform.”
The two officers said they have earned buy-in from other members of the force by taking nuisance cases off their hands.
They cited one case where, through HOT, a man well-known to police as “Rooster” sobered up after two decades on the streets. He now runs a construction company using his remodeling skills, Schwiethale said.
“When he was the worst of the worst of the worst and we were able to change him,” he said, “that’s what got the officers to start believing in the program.”
They also said they helped a former foster child — who authorities had returned to her homeless, biological father — clear up legal problems so that she could enlist in the U.S. Navy.
Cost of homelessness
They said they hope to convince the Wichita officials that a long-term investment in HOT makes more fiscal sense than spending money repeatedly jailing the homeless or treating them time and again in emergency rooms.
According to one study, Schwiethale said, one homeless person can cost a Midwest community about $54,000 a year.
The Kansas City, Mo., Police Department has calculated that a single incident involving a homeless man could cost the public as much as $5,400, factoring in activities such as emergency medical treatment and court proceedings.
“We do everything we can to try to keep them out of the court system,” Schwiethale said. “It is just a revolving door that costs the taxpayers money.”
Officers Kenny Miller and Michael Herschberger of the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department were among the law enforcement personnel who attended the presentation.
They praised the system in place in the city, where specialty courts handle jail diversion in certain cases involving substance abuse, mental illness, or military veterans.
“I’m not a social worker,” Miller said.
They also wondered if HOT would work in a larger metropolitan area like Kansas City. Schwiethale said Houston, Texas, has implemented the concept.
Gilmore, KCMO’s assistant city manager, said the approach could fit in with police Chief Darryl Forte’s efforts to reduce violent crime by freeing up officers from handling the lesser offenses generally committed by the homeless.
“I am so excited that Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., are both talking about this,” Gilmore said. “We need to all be on the same page.”