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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

The Listening House, packed with people watching TV, using computers, or just keeping warm, laid the foundation for the police-social-service collaboration. Rosemarie Reger-Rumsey, the center's director, noticed that police never felt comfortable coming into the shelter unless they needed to make an arrest. One day she invited a beat officer to stop by for coffee. "He accepted, and then introduced us to his partner," she recalls. "Then we extended the offer to his commander."

Eventually, she suggested formalizing a partnership between police and a variety of social-service providers - shelters, medical staff, housing experts. The idea meant overcoming prejudice on both sides, but the first meeting, held about a year ago, was well attended.

"I really hold those two officers up as being the start of it all," she says. One still comes by regularly to play cards. Ms. Reger-Rumsey and Paulos agree that the most important outcome is simply the improved trust and communication. "We're trying to change a culture here," she says. "We've had officers call and say, 'so-and-so is hanging out with a tough crowd.' It gives us an opportunity to sit the person down and talk."

***

There have been concrete changes, too. When police mentioned they were spending too much time shuttling homeless people to detoxification centers, one shelter, the Dorothy Day Center, agreed to admit people with higher alcohol levels. The result: police have more time to patrol streets and handle emergencies.

Dozens of police attended two days of training on how to deal with the mentally ill. They, in turn, held a session for providers on the use of force - when and why it's necessary. The next time Paulos found himself fighting off an antagonistic man, one social-service worker stopped and wished him well. "Now they understand what we're doing," he says.

Commander John Vomastek first saw the partnership's potential when someone forwarded an e-mail sent to the mayor's office: A resident of a new condo development was upset about a man with a shopping cart throwing trash along the river.

"Instead of giving it to the [police] squad, I called a guy who works with the homeless camps.... He found the guy, who was mentally ill, and got him to the hospital," he says. The guy who sent the e-mail "loved it. And we spent zero police time on the whole thing."

As Paulos navigates the streets, we check out an encampment by the railroad tracks. There, surrounded by shacks of scrap metal and tarps, and an astounding array of pots, pans, and bikes, two men build a fire and open a can of Dinty Moore chicken stew with a knife.

One, Rich, says he lost his job as a retail manager over a year ago. A former addict, he avoids shelters since they have drugs. His friend, Paul, says he's been homeless for two months. He was laid off from his truck-driving job and had to sell his house.

Both men are articulate and thoughtful. As we leave, Paulos muses that the next training session should introduce officers to the homeless who have had jobs, been to college, and, through some misfortune, ended up on the streets. "They're no different from you or I, just a different path of life was dealt," he says.

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