Backstory: In St. Paul, putting less heat on the homeless
In a novel move, police and social-service providers team up to find a better way to deal with those on the street.
ST. PAUL, MINN.
Sgt. Paul Paulos hasn't been on duty 10 minutes when some disturbing activity on a street corner catches his attention. He quickly pulls a U-turn on a cold night in downtown St. Paul.Skip to next paragraph
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A man in a red jacket is passed out next to a battered radio and a half-empty vodka bottle. After calling an ambulance, Sergeant Paulos takes a quick assessment: He rubs the man's chest, eliciting moans, and finds a lump on the back of his head.
"Ron! Ron!" he calls. Paulos knows the man. He's a Vietnam vet with mental-health issues, "one of our local homeless," he says. Later, he helps emergency workers load the man on a stretcher and empties the vodka in the bushes.
On one level, the incident underscores the dual role police often play with the homeless: They act as their protectors from dangers on the streets, and enforcers who keep them from bothering others. But Paulos's sensitivity also hints at a deeper shift under way in this upper Midwestern city - one that advocacy groups trumpet as a national model.
In an unusual move, police here are teaming up with social-service providers to find a better way to deal with the homeless. Historically, the relationship between the two has been defined by distrust rather than time spent chatting over doughnuts. What's emerging, according to officials on both sides, is a system that is more effective and humane in dealing with one of America's most stubborn social problems.
"There's been a trend with a few police departments becoming more sensitized toward the needs and issues that the homeless population face," says Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. He cites Philadelphia and Orlando, Fla., in addition to St. Paul as examples. "These are the kind of partnerships we support."
The move comes as many cities have criminalized homeless behavior like loitering and camping on sidewalks. Even St. Paul, traditionally a liberal redoubt, made the National Coalition's "Mean City" list just a few years ago.
On one typically raw Minnesota night, I join Paulos on his rounds. After the encounter with Ron, he threads his car through the relatively quiet streets of St. Paul, past tidy high-rises and through the grittier Rice Street corridor. Paulos sees a couple of panhandlers and politely tells them to leave. Later he checks in with people lingering in a downtown park. No problems.
From the passenger's seat on this night, it might seem like St. Paul doesn't have much of a homeless problem. Compared with New York or Chicago, it doesn't. But an estimated 1,500 people are without shelter here at any moment. Many are concentrated in the downtown area, which has undergone a renaissance, making the problem more visible.
As Paulos sees it, dealing successfully with the homeless mostly boils down to giving respect and expecting it in return. "At one time, they didn't know me, and they tested me daily," he says. "They test, they find out how you'll deal with a situation, then they develop a relationship."
Paulos has been on the beat for 12 years. He's polite and clean-cut. When we stop by the Listening Center, a local shelter, he greets people warmly. "Look at you! You're a good-looking guy when you clean up," he kids another homeless person named Ron, who has trimmed his beard. Paulos almost shot Ron one night when the man threatened him with an unknown object - a lighter, it turned out - in his pocket. "Ron and I have gone toe-to-toe, but he's pretty cool," he says.