Alabama state trooper feeds homeless: Are cops a new ally for nation's poor?

As dozens of cities crack down on public attempts to help the hungry, a new generation of community-oriented police are shifting attitudes about homelessness: from punishment to prevention. 

(Adam Cotterell/Boise State Public Radio via AP)
This recent photo, shows the entrance to an alley known as Cooper Court, a homeless camp in Boise, Idaho. Most people driving past probably don’t realize this place is here, though one can catch glimpses exiting the freeway onto River Street or from Americana.

Raenetta Burch was moved to tears Sunday when the Alabama driver spotted a state trooper deliver meals to a homeless father-son pair on the side of Interstate 65.

As Ms. Burch told NBC affiliate WSFA 12, she wanted others to notice that "Law enforcement [officers] have hearts too." And now they do notice: Her photo of Trooper Dee Williams chatting with the men, after learning they were hungry and zooming off to find food, has been "liked" on Facebook nearly 4,000 times in less than a day.

The story may sound familiar: It's the second time this week that an Alabama state trooper has helped out someone on the side of the road simply because "I hate to see anyone go hungry," as Trooper Justin O'Neal told Birmingham's ABC 33/40.

Just as surprised as Williams to find that his good deed had gone viral, Mr. O'Neal explained that he drove a homeless man, and his belongings, 15 miles to McDonalds because "as a trooper, our main job is to save lives and protect property, but as a Christian and as a human being that's just the right thing to do."

Such Good Samaritan acts come even as dozens of American cities are making it harder to offer food to someone hungry, or to let the homeless sit or sleep in public, through laws intended to support local businesses and, in theory, push the homeless towards long-term solutions, rather than one-time assistance. 

But another trend is also emerging: Community-oriented policing, including new philosophies of how law enforcement can leverage its resources to treat and prevent, not contribute to, the rise in homelessness in the US. 

Although a lone officer helping the homeless earns accolades, cities from California to New Hampshire are limiting the public's ability to feed those in need. In 2013-2014 alone, 21 cities passed restrictions, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless' report "Share No More."  

Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found itself embroiled in controversy last year after 90-year-old veteran and civil rights activist Arnold Abbott, head of the charity Love Thy Neighbor, defied new limits on feeding the homeless in a public park. "One of the police officers said, 'Drop that plate right now,' as if I were carrying a weapon," Mr. Abbott told Florida's Local 10, calling the limitations "man's inhumanity to man."

But Mayor Jack Seiler said the homeless should rely on more comprehensive services, like shelters, and suggested that large food hand-outs encourage a cycle of homelessness. 

Criminalizing care for the homeless may worsen relationships between homeless people and police, further discouraging them from seeking help in an emergency. Yet, in a counter-trend, the homeless may benefit from law enforcement's shift towards community-oriented policing, particularly in the wake of widespread distrust after protests over the deaths of black men at police hands, from Ferguson, Mo., to Staten Island. 

The Department of Justice defines community-oriented policing services, or COPS, as "a philosophy[s] the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime."

The key word: Proactively. Increasingly, police see their role as preventing problems, not just responding when they pop up, a mindset that can literally be lifesaving, especially for those without shelter. 

Advocates say community-oriented solutions, from police-shelter partnerships, to training officers in mental health issues, have far more potential to get people off the streets for good than a simple 'You can't sleep here' approach.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, for example, recommends police form outreach teams, which can get at the root causes of homelessness, instead of superficial clear-outs. 

Highlighted in the Center's "No Safe Place" report is the work of Police Sgt. Stephen Wick, who has led Houston to develop a four-officer, three mental health-specialist team to not just 'fix' the city's homelessness problem, but get to know the people in it. 

"I see him just about every day, and he always stops and says, 'Hi,'" one man on the street says in a video following Sergeant Wick as he bikes his downtown beat. "That doesn't happen very often with other cops. It means a great deal, because at least somebody out here cares, you know? Someone in a uniform cares."

Back in the office, reflecting on the program, Mr. Wick sits in front of a wall covered with photos of some of the faces he now knows, and helps. Since 2010, the Houston Homeless Outreach Team has moved over 400 people into housing. 

But officers don't need a special homelessness team to make a difference. Helping with small details like finding ID for a shelter, or bus fare, can make a difference. 

And it doesn't take much to shift community attitudes toward police. "Very seldom are we just stopping by to say 'Hi,'" St. Paul Sgt. Paul Paulos told Minnesota Public Radio of his own department's changing attitudes. Sometimes that's what it takes "to treat them with some dignity. Treat them as a person," he says.

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