In the United States this year, an estimated three and a half million people will experience homelessness. Providing emergency shelter and essential services to these people is a challenge that's putting a strain on resources in cities and towns across the nation. So, in St. Paul, Minnesota, police and social service providers are working together to find a better way to assist the city's homeless population.
The Listening House is a downtown St. Paul homeless shelter. It's packed, mostly with men, who want a place to spend their days, make a phone call and get a cup of coffee while they seek refuge from the streets and the cold and snowy weather in this upper Midwestern city. When Sergeant Paul Paulos walks up, the crowd outside the shelter parts so he can enter, and the men respond to his "What's up, guys?" with friendly greetings.
Paulos drops in to chat with the director of Listening House. He gives her the latest information about some homeless camps, about a kilometer away, that he's just checked out. "They've evicted them all," he tells her. "Just came from the mission, they're loaded up for the night." Paulos says bad weather means a busy night for shelters. And on this night, the temperature is around freezing and there's a steady snowfall blanketing the city.
The sergeant and Rosemarie Reger-Rumsey engage in a friendly chat for a few minutes. This is a far cry from the days a few years ago, when the relationship between police and social service providers was so bad that Paulos says he used to ignore much of what Rumsey said. And Rumsey says the police were an unwelcome presence in her shelter. "If an officer did walk in 5 years ago," she recalls, "this room would get dead silent because everyone would be looking to see who was going to get hauled out of here. Now that the police are a presence here on a routine basis, (the men) may look around a little bit, but they don't stop what they're doing."
About two years ago, the St. Paul police and the social service providers began working together informally in their dealings with the homeless. Rumsey had invited two patrol officers to visit the shelter when they weren't making an arrest so that they could get to know the Listening House clientele under a different set of circumstances. Since then, the relationship has become more formalized in what's dubbed the "police-provider forum," where the police and the providers consult each other, discussing the best ways to help the homeless and keep them safe from predators. Rumsey points out, "(We) had a few occasions where someone who probably shouldn't have been in here was here and we sat down together with that person where I said 'I don't want you here' and the police backed me up."
The relationship evolved slowly since initially there was little trust between the two sides and sometimes-conflicting priorities. But now, for the first time, St. Paul has included a session about the "police-provider forum" in its police-training academy. They want to raise sensitivity to the city's homeless population.
Back in his police car, Sergeant Paulos patrols the 2-square kilometer downtown area where many of the city's 1,500 homeless people live. He says the police try to protect the homeless just as they do with the rest of the community, but one of the challenges has been gaining the trust of those who are experiencing homelessness. "That's where the police and the providers have to become stronger partners, because without that, they won't trust us. They trust the providers, but the police…" He shakes his head. "Very seldom are we just stopping by to say 'hi.'"
But Paulos says police are doing that now -- at the Listening House and at other shelters in the city. They're on a first-name basis with some of the city's homeless people. And now that police are more familiar with some of the problems those individuals are facing, they can look for alternative measures, such as counseling instead of jail.
Sergeant Paulus believes the collaboration between his force and the city's social services providers is making a positive difference for the city's homeless population. They meet every other month to discuss their concerns and work out any problems. For instance, when nearly all of the downtown patrol cars were tied up admitting homeless people into alcohol detoxification centers, the police asked the providers for help. One shelter agreed to raise the alcohol limit for those seeking refuge, freeing up police to patrol the streets.
When they're on the streets and working with the homeless, Paulos says the police try to keep in mind a couple of key words: dignity and respect. "When it's all done - and we talked about this before - it's the respect. And treat them with some dignity. Treat them as a person."