Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Public safety

Carlton: A surprising story of the police and the homeless

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At first, the rumpled lump tucked high under the eaves of a noisy Interstate 275 overpass looks to be no more than a pile of trash — garbage bags, tattered rags, assorted junk. Then it moves.

The sun has been up a while now and Tampa police Officer Randi Whitney bounds up the angled concrete to wake what turns out to be a disheveled bear of a man who rises to tower over her. She recognizes him. He knows her, too — one of two city cops who are homeless liaisons.

Yes, he says, he's been off his medication awhile. Yes, he knows he needs it.

"You need a shower," she tells him, not unkindly. "I need my clothes washed as well," he agrees, sheepish as a child.

Technically, Officer Whitney could take him to jail for trespassing on Florida Department of Transportation property, a journey with which he is familiar. Or, she tells him, she will find him a bed — there are never enough beds, but she has ways of making these things happen — at a place where he can get help.

He'll go, he finally says. He hoists a huge duffel bag that holds what he owns, plus a black bicycle helmet he has decorated with a woman's jeweled brooch and feathers from a hawk. The helmet, he confides as we head for the patrol car, is for his magical powers.

I am riding with Officer Whitney on a cool March morning on a sweep through Ybor City, where the homeless linger like ghosts long after the bars have closed. She stops to give a donated bus pass to a man on a bench who assures her he does not "bum," or panhandle, clearly a point of pride. Dealing with aggressive panhandling is part of her day.

She tromps down alleys and talks to everyone, aware it is not brawn but her mouth that is her best weapon and persuader. She chats, cajoles, asserts, asks questions like the answers matter. She remembers them: Steven with the Chipped Tooth, a woman called Krispy Kreme, Dean who has trouble with his feet. Out there is a guy everyone calls Milk Crate. The ones willing to cooperate get rated on a scale of vulnerability, the highest being 17. She sounds worried about someone named Artie, a 15.

"So your sister really wants you home," she tells another man, this one sitting on a cracked sidewalk. "You ready to do it yet?" Not yet, he says. "Service resistant," they call the ones grimly determined to stay off the grid.

Her job might seem at odds with a city that recently had people arrested for serving food to the homeless without a permit, a city that shut down a park because too many of them were lying around in it. But anyone who thinks her job is pandering to the problem is missing the point: Even if you don't buy the empathy angle, getting people off the street and keeping them out of jail saves money. It slows related crimes like burglary and trespassing. These cops also work with businesses and neighbors affected by a population of street people.

And in the daily grind — the pervasive mental health issues untreated, the alcohol, the drugs — now and again come glimmers of promise.

A bus ticket home. An apartment. A job.

A young man she spots as a former gang member — bullet scars, teardrops inked by his eye — needs to replace the ID that was in his clothes stolen from a laundromat. She has the paperwork, but he'll also need a shirt to get into a government building to get it done. She fishes around in her patrol car trunk that's packed with donated shoes and coats and finds what she's looking for. He thanks her, skinning on the T-shirt that says Take Back The Night.

"You still smoking spice?" she asks another man — the cheap synthetic pot that can render a person into a belligerent idiot or nodding zombie. "Not really," he says, eyes drifting away.

Later, we drive the man from under the interstate to a shelter that, miracle of miracles, has clean scrubs, services and a bed where he can sleep. There they unpack his blankets and clothes to launder, promise to keep his helmet safe and tell him that yes, he can keep his two Bibles by his bed. He mentions a "fishing tool" deep in his bag and reaches in, everyone going very alert as he unwraps a very large and lethal-looking knife.

Officer Whitney swiftly and easily takes possession of it like it's no big deal.

As we leave, he asks if she will come see him. Of course, she says, and she will.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

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