By Emily Kemme
Local police balance enforcement with a team approach to determine homeless needs
Police are often the first contact with people experiencing homelessness, particularly those living in public spaces. But officers have pivoted from enforcement to outreach, recognizing a vital need to unravel why someone is homeless in the first place.
“Police used to be in the business of moving people along,” Fort Collins Police Chief Jeff Swoboda admits. “Now, it’s more than saying, ‘just beat it.’”
Those types of interactions with the Fort Collins homeless population still occur—the city has a ban prohibiting living in tents or sleeping on public property. But Swoboda’s department, similar to other Northern Colorado police departments, now works to connect homeless people to agencies that can help put together a long-term strategy.
Teaming up with nonprofits, government and business organizations
Sergeant Garret Osilka volunteered to establish a homeless liaison program in the Loveland Police Department after researching similar programs in Florida. He discovered a disconnect between law enforcement and available resources: He admits he was a cop for 16 years before he knew there were options other than ticketing or arresting a homeless person.
“It dawned on me, the police needed education about resources, and we had to get out of the mindset that we’re going to arrest or ticket this problem away,” Osilka says. “There’s more to just the safety or enforcement piece.”
If people are committing a serious crime against a person, they’ll end up going to jail. It’s the minor things like littering and public intoxication that are overlooked. In those cases, Osilka now attempts to connect the individual to an agency instead of arresting someone.
“It’s not a heavy-handed situation, and I’m trying to keep it that way,” he says. “We’re trying to be a liaison to find out who we can help them contact to get what they need. It’s informal case management.”
Greeley police officer Joel Peters, a member of Greeley Police Department’s Neighborhood Action Team, primarily works in Lincoln Park in downtown Greeley, one of the city’s most concentrated areas of homeless people. His team checks in with homeless people on a monthly basis. The goal is to have a human conversation.
They’d rather plug people in to get life-changing help, like driving them to mental health appointments at SummitStone Health Partners in Fort Collins or North Range Behavioral Health in Greeley. Osilka has driven people to another city to obtain a social security card to access disabled resources.
“It’s often some behavior like mental illness that triggers the call—it’s a time of crisis. It’s incumbent on us to know the resources to address the problems as opposed to the old days when we would enforce by ticketing,” Osilka says.
Swoboda’s department works with Outreach Fort Collins, and budgets for positions in that agency; the homeless population is less intimidated and successful redirection is more likely when working with outreach personnel.
Often, the problem is logistics: when people don’t have transportation, they end up in a never-ending spiral without a solution.
“If people are arrested or ticketed, they have to go to court at 8:30 in the morning in another city, and they don’t get there. Then they have a failure to appear, they get arrested and then go to jail. If it happens to be the day of an encampment cleanup, they can lose everything they own,” Osilka says.
Partnering with co-responders
In 2015, Greeley Police Department (GPD) initiated the “action lab,” partnering with Greeley Fire Department paramedics and Weld County mental health specialists to reduce the number of police responses to increasing 911 calls.
Police are trained for escalation but don’t have knowledge about addressing someone who’s schizophrenic or suicidal, says Sergeant Matthew Patella, who heads the GPD’s Neighborhood Action Team.
“We recognize many of these calls aren’t crime-related. Police officers aren’t equipped for mental health events,” Patella says. “We want someone else to take the lead when someone is suffering a mental health crisis and not take them to jail.”
Patella turns to co-responders like Jayme Clapp, a licensed professional counselor/licensed addiction counselor who was hired from North Range through a grant program funded by the Greeley City Council.
Clapp is one of five mental health co-responders working with Greeley and Evans police.
She is dispatched with one of the seven officers in the Neighborhood Action Team; the hope is that a person in distress will talk to someone on the team.
Patella says co-responders make decisions about whether the situation requires a mental health hold or if it’s substance abuse, with possible transportation to a crisis center for rehabilitation.
Clapp defines success in baby steps, whether it’s getting people to decrease alcohol consumption and maintain sobriety or agreeing to pursue outpatient care for mental health. Clapp believes if you can provide options for people to make choices about accountability and responsibility for harm reduction, there’s an understanding that their decisions matter.
“It’s a huge part of the human experience that our decisions matter, because it means ‘I matter,’” she says.
Fort Collins Police Department (FCPD) increased their co-response team in 2018, and currently operates four teams 24/7. Each team includes a police officer, mental health professional and community paramedic.
“They’re out there asking: do you feel safe, what’s going on, what meds are you on—it can be as basic as, ‘how are you feeling today?’,” Swoboda says.
The goal is to get people to a safe environment. The team follows up with healthcare partners to get the person into a stable environment instead of taking them to an emergency room.
FCPD works with The Murphy Center, a one-stop shop for services, clothing and help putting together a long term plan. The Center collaborates with 20 independent agencies and community partners, offering over 40 services to almost 3,000 people annually, including helping people qualify for long term housing.
“We refer them to go there,” Swoboda says. “If they need a ride, we get them a ride, although we try not to spend time carting people from place to place. But if that’s the barrier to getting what they need, we’ll do it.”
Loveland’s city council recently authorized an additional hire, bringing their co-responder program to four mental health professionals.
Osilka works his days off to fill program needs; he and other officers who have volunteered to work their days off help make provider appointments for people and will drive them, if necessary.
FINDING HOUSING RESOURCES
All three municipalities work with shelters to help keep the homeless off streets and public spaces, but beds are limited.
United Way of Weld County runs a Housing Navigation Center in Greeley. Similar to Fort Collins’ Murphy Center, the facility offers resources, helps people obtain identification and gets them started on access to housing. There is also a cold weather shelter on the premises. Catholic Charities runs the Guadalupe Center, a dry (alcohol-free) shelter where children and families are temporarily housed.
Loveland’s current shelter has a capacity of 22 people, Alison Hade, Community Partnership Administrator for the City of Loveland, says. It’s a number the city recognizes is insufficient for what it estimates to be up to 250 homeless during certain times of the year.
“We need to have the ability to go up to at least 50 beds,” she says.
The city was fully equipped to start a cold weather shelter in November 2022, but with the recent city council decision to enact a camping ban, Hade says they need to be more nimble.
Loveland broke ground on 54 supportive housing units in May. Persons with chronic or persistent mental health issues or addiction require supportive housing while others might benefit from rapid rehousing with temporary rent support to help them return to the workforce, she says.
“Housing is at a premium right now,” Patella says. “It’s difficult for people to get housing in this market, and Greeley public housing has a big wait list.”
Getting people into housing is step one to resolving the problems.
“If you don’t have a home, it’s hard to line up a long-term strategy to address the issues leading to homelessness,” Fort Collins Police Chief Jeff Swoboda says.
POLICE FOLLOW NATIONAL ENCAMPMENT CASE LAW
When homeless people camp on private property, police can ticket them for trespassing and enforce removal.
The law is different for camping in public spaces such as parks and sidewalks.
Fort Collins has a municipal ordinance banning camping on public property. At the urging of residents and businesses, the Loveland City Council has recently approved steps to enact an urban camping ban. But when there are no beds available at a shelter, if a person is sleeping in a park the police can’t issue a ticket.
There have been successful legal challenges nationwide against removing encampments—known as tent cities—on public property when no housing is available.
“Camping bans weren’t holding up to legal scrutiny,” Patella says. “We have to prove we have bed space, so we don’t run afoul of claims of cruel and unusual punishment,” referring to Ninth Circuit case law established in Martin v. Boise, which found camping bans violated the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they criminalize homeless persons for sleeping outdoors on public property if there is no option of sleeping indoors.
The availability of a bed can be problematic, Swoboda says. “If they choose not to go to a shelter—and it can be a variety of reasons, including some shelters don’t allow couples or dogs, or they don’t feel safe in a shelter, an issue prevalent during COVID—then we enforce.”
Loveland counts 41 encampments to date, assessing them according to a three-tiered priority system based on health risks. Encampments ranked as priority 1 are considered to pose immediate risks to public health or safety and are subject to clean-up. Denver federal district courts have upheld rulings that campers must be given up to seven days’ notice to clear out belongings.
Fort Collins, like other Northern Colorado municipalities, spends thousands annually hiring contractors to decontaminate sites through their parks department, Swoboda says.
The City of Greeley doesn’t have a camping ban on its books, although Patella admits that having one would give police another tool to move homeless populations from public areas.
The primary concern about encampments are public health hazards, particularly clean water, he says, referring to an encampment where there were high E. coli rates in adjacent drinking water.
Greeley follows the Denver federal district court ruling on giving notice for clean-ups.
“We never want to surprise anybody, even the day of clean-up we give people time to get their stuff. We’re responsible for their personal property if we take them to jail, and we won’t confiscate personal documents,” Patella says.
He recognizes there’s a balance. “People need to live but we need to prevent it from becoming unhealthy.”