[Hpn] New Orleans, LA - Police change policy on homeless - The Times-Picayune - November 08, 2003

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Sat, 8 Nov 2003 06:46:59 -0500


Police change policy on homeless

Needy to get help instead of jail time
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By Michael Perlstein - The Times-Picayune - November 08, 2003

New Orleans, LA - The last time Jessie Pullins visited the former
Howard Johnson's hotel on Loyola Avenue, he went for dinner. He
wasn't invited, though, and he didn't go through the front
door.

At the time, he was scrounging for food in the trash and dodging
cops, a homeless crackhead caught in the alligator grip of
addiction.

On Wednesday, he arrived at the hotel, now a Holiday Inn, as an
honored guest of the New Orleans Police Department.

Immaculately groomed and sober for the past eight years, he told
a group of more than 40 officers how he used to sleep on a piece
of cardboard, gather up his entire life into a shopping cart,
earn $60 in a day by collecting cans, then give $59 of it to his
dope supplier.

With Pullins' plaintive story, the New Orleans Police Department
quietly set into motion a radical new policy in dealing with
homeless people.

If the program works, the days of mass round-ups and summary
arrests for obstructing the sidewalk are over, Capt. Louis
Dabdoub III said.

"We're going to try to do something that's never been done before
in the city," said Dabdoub, commander of the 8th Police District,
which includes the French Quarter, Central Business District and
the bulk of the city's homeless population.

"What we've been doing with all the arrests has been a no-win
situation, both for the homeless and for the police."

After working behind the scenes on the program for nearly a year,
Dabdoub used a special roll call of his supervisors and
detectives to launch what could become the city's boldest
initiative ever in dealing with people who have no place to
stay:

Instead of arresting them, Dabdoub said, officers will now call
for a "homeless assistance unit" to direct the street dwellers to
a shelter, hospital or substance abuse clinic.

The unit, a specially outfitted $30,000 van donated by the
private, nonprofit foundation Baptist Community Ministries, will
be staffed by graduate students from local universities.

The volunteers, most of them social work students, will steer the
homeless to appropriate programs, Dabdoub said, eliminating the
former policy of giving them one-way tickets to Orleans Parish
Prison.

"Going out and arresting them is not the right way to deal with
the situation," Dabdoub said. "It might be the way we've been
trained, but it's not the right way to resolve this problem."

Arrests will be reserved only for homeless people who are violent
or suspects in serious crimes, Dabdoub said.

Ending the cycle

At the roll call, Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity for
the Homeless, explained that arrests often help to keep a
homeless person homeless.

Many times, jailed homeless people will miss important doctor
appointments or social service visits, won't get needed
medication, will linger in prison because they can't make bail,
and, frequently, will lose identification cards and other
paperwork needed to get into shelters.

Additionally, homeless people with jobs are likely to return to
the ranks of the unemployed.

"There's a misconception out there that putting a homeless person
in jail is doing them a favor because they get a roof over their
heads and three meals a day," Kegel said. "But in most cases,
it's a real setback for everyone. If it's possible to avoid
making an arrest, it really helps us do our jobs moving people
out of homelessness."

To accommodate the new program, Dabdoub has rallied assistance
from the city and several other agencies. Dr. Dee Harper, a
Loyola University criminology professor, will coordinate
volunteers for the van.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., secured a $249,000 federal
appropriation to get the program rolling and lay groundwork for a
new, state-of-the-art shelter, on the drawing board for
construction within the next three years.

City Council member Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, whose district
includes the French Quarter, helped shepherd the federal, city
and private funding.

Kegel said the new spirit of cooperation "is quite a sea change
for the city and the Police Department.

In the past, Parish Prison was treated like one big homeless
shelter."

Recent studies have pegged the chronically homeless population of
New Orleans at about 1,400, she said, and many of them travel an
endless circuit from prison to the street and back to prison.

Dabdoub said that when the program kicks off later this month:

-- The New Orleans Mission will have about 220 additional beds,
most of them donated by Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti's office.

-- Several shelters will expand their daytime hours.

-- The Sheriff's Office will begin providing transportation from
Parish Prison to homeless shelters for inmates who are released
after midnight but have no place to go.

-- The city will help subsidize shelter fees for homeless people
who don't have money.

-- A "homeless contact sheet" will be distributed to all police
officers, listing all available shelters and programs.

-- Homeless people and the formerly homeless, such as Pullins,
will work as police liaisons.

In getting the program off the ground, the liaisons will be
introduced in three districts that have the lion's share of the
homeless people: the 1st, 6th and 8th.

Other districts may be added later, Dabdoub said. The idea is "to
put a face on the homeless problem," he said, adding: "In order
to start changing perspectives, you need to personalize the
process."

Fighting misconceptions

Pullins, 47, is scheduled to work with officers in the 6th
District, which includes Central City and parts of Uptown. But
first, he is slated to address several more groups of officers at
police roll calls.

"I think it's a great idea," said Pullins, who has been clean for
about eight years and now works at a local hotel.

"It's an opportunity to change the concept of a homeless person
and bridge the gap between police and the street community."

To most homeless people, Pullins said, police officers aren't the
enemy. If anything, they are considered obstacles to be avoided
in order to get sleep, food and, frequently, alcohol or drugs.

"There is a misconception that homeless people want trouble, that
they want to do damage," he told police supervisors at
Wednesday's roll call. "But, really, all that most homeless
people want is to just make it through the day."

An Army veteran who worked as a mechanic before he got hooked on
crack in the late 1980s, Pullins said he lifted himself from the
street through a program at Ozanam Inn, one of the city's busiest
shelters.

After he stopped doing drugs, he landed a steady job and married
a former homeless woman he met while handing out clothes at
Ozanam. He honed his public speaking by giving testimonials at
the shelter about his rehabilitation.

One of the people he addressed at the shelter was Greg Winfield.
Suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction, Winfield appeared
to be one of those hopeless cases, but at some point, Pullins'
words got through, and Winfield pulled his life together.

Today, Winfield, 45, works as a food service manager at Ozanam
Inn. Last week, he joined Pullins as a police liaison.

"Homeless people don't want no trouble," he said. "All we want is
somewhere to go."
. . . . . . .
Michael Perlstein can be reached at (504) 826-3316
or mperlstein@timespicayune.com

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