One important aspect of community policing involves identifying a problem and thinking creatively to fix it in the most efficient way possible. That is exactly what Sergeant Steve Wick and his team have done with the Houston, Texas, Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team.
Sergeant Wick became frustrated when a mother and daughter continually ended up back on the streets after he found them a shelter. Sergeant Wick knew that sometimes you have to do more than simply put a homeless person on a bus and hope for the best. Sometimes you have to shepherd them through the process to ensure that they get the help they truly need. Sergeant Wick used his access to the right resources and out-of-the box thinking to create the Homeless Outreach Team to genuinely help the homeless individuals of Houston get off the streets and back on their feet.
The Homeless Outreach Team is comprised of one sergeant, four officers, and three mental health case workers. The team partners with dozens of outreach organizations to provide housing, healthcare, food, identification cards, and jobs to the homeless.
The team truly gets to know these people that need assistance to increase their quality of life. Since the team began in 2011, it has helped almost 500 homeless people. Sergeant Wick and his officers first approach homeless individuals and ask if they want help to get off the streets. Then, the team conducts one-on-one meetings with “the regulars”, those they encounter repeatedly under the various bridges. This technique has taught them the biggest hurdle between the typical homeless Houstonian and a better life is that most of them can’t adequately – and legally – identify themselves. Many of the homeless do not have the personal identification necessary to access resources.
The team members operate out of a wheelchair-accessible van fully loaded with Mobile Data Terminal software and portable access to criminal histories, a handheld Automated Fingerprint Identification System, mug shots, and enough technology to enable them to fingerprint anyone at the drop of a hat. The ability to fingerprint on the spot allows the team to accurately and quickly identify the individual, which gets them one step closer to getting the homeless off the streets. They also have a donated color printer for documents of all kinds. They follow and assist those that want help by providing them with their Social Security entitlements, medical checkups to be cleared for independent living, and haircuts and new clothes to make them prepared for job interviews. The team does not just point the homeless in the right direction, these officers help individuals through the maze of forms, appointments, and contacts needed to successfully get off the streets.
The 2014 Houston Homeless Count showed there are approximately 5,400 homeless people in the Houston area on any given night. According to the Houston Chronicle, that number is a 16% decrease from the number of homeless people in 2013, and a 37% drop from 2011. And that mother and daughter? They have been in a permanent housing situation since being placed in 2011.
Sergeant Wick knows that he is not the solution, but a tool to utilize to get to that solution. Most importantly, he is someone in a uniform that cares for the homeless population of Houston.
To see the officers in action check out this video of the Homeless Outreach Team.