Compassion in Policing
Homelessness Affects Jurisdictions Statewide
Everybody has a story.
In Bowling Green, a gentleman named Elvis was living in the backseat of his small sedan, parked just off the street in a residential neighborhood beside his brother’s home. The two had a tumultuous relationship, and after their mother died, Elvis chose the comfort and quiet of his car.
Elvis had a woefully low IQ, and though he had worked for nearly 20 years at a car wash, he struggled to find work after the business shut its doors. For four years, Elvis slept in his car, unbeknownst to the local police or homeless program administrators.
Rhondell Miller, executive director of Hotel Inc., a non-profit which works to assist the homeless, was told about Elvis by another client who was leaving town and concerned for his friend.
“When Ron was leaving for a year to go to a long-term rehab program in Florida, he said, ‘Oh by the way, you need to go find Elvis,’” Miller recalled. “I just said, ‘Who’s Elvis?’ The only details he gave me were that he was in a car that did not run, it was gray and near Payne Street.
“So it took us a few weeks – we even drove by the car several times before I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the car we’re looking for,’” Miller continued.
Miller and another member of the organization’s street medicine team approached Elvis, offered him food and asked if they could help. He kindly declined. That was July, said Bowling Green Assistant Police Chief Melanie Watts.
“It took six months to get Elvis out of his car,” said Watts, who also serves on the street medicine team and is a Hotel Inc. board member. “Finally, we had a really bad snow storm.”
“We went and he opened up his car door for us, and I could see that all he had was a U-Haul moving blanket,” Miller added. “He was not comfortable enough to go into the shelter because there were way too many people. He didn’t want to go to the Room in the Inn program out of fear. We got him a sleeping bag, provided him hand warmers and told him we would be back the next morning to make sure he didn’t freeze to death.”
True to her word, Miller returned the next morning and there was eight inches of snow on the ground. Elvis hopped in her truck that morning. He was cold.
Cases like Elvis’ are all too common, Watts said. From January 2016 to January 2017, Watts said Bowling Green police were dispatched to 131 check-welfare calls regarding homeless residents in the community. The agency’s officers also completed more than 170 contacts with homeless people and issued 36 citations to residents deemed to have undesirable living conditions.
In stark contrast, Miller said Hotel Inc. serves an average of 500 households each month. Those households equate anywhere from 700 to 1,400 people. Last year, the group’s street medicine team made more than 1,600 contacts with homeless residents.
“The reality is that as long as they have food, shelter and are not a danger to themselves or others, our hands are somewhat tied,” Watts said of Bowling Green’s homeless population. “I think that as a community, we have to realize, though, that there is a problem.”
Bowling Green is the third largest city in Kentucky, with more than 61,000 residents. Just like Elvis, it is easy for those who are not causing trouble to live below the police department’s radar.
“He wasn’t someone who would have been considered a nuisance,” Miller said, “so they would not have known he was there unless they were driving down the street and happened to see someone sleeping in the car.”
Elvis was in his early 50s when he finally accepted help and left his car. Over the next two years, Miller said the man who initially was untrusting and spoke very few words, began to blossom. He finally received long overdue medical care, a set of eye glasses, dentures and, eventually, his own apartment in income-based housing. He even began volunteering his time at Hotel Inc. to help others who faced the same struggles in life he had.
However, in October 2016 Elvis told a nurse practitioner at Hotel Inc. that he was concerned because his pants were falling off and he was often sick to his stomach. After extensive work with the local hospital to get Elvis the medical tests he needed, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
“The cancer was surrounding his bronchia, lungs and heart, and it was in his pelvic bones and his stomach,” Miller said.
Despite his terminal condition, Elvis insisted that he attend Hotel Inc.’s Christmas service, Miller said. He died just two days later. As an officer, Watts said she has been asked why she devotes so much of her time to working with the homeless. It is because of people like Elvis, she said.
“He had a really good last two years,” Watts said. “He knew that, and he gave back. He didn’t die by himself. That’s what makes it worth it.”
Balance and Compassion
Begging, loitering, theft – those are the typical complaints Newport Police Lt. Kevin Drohan said police receive regarding homeless citizens in that northern Kentucky community.
“Oftentimes they hang around the liquor stores,” Drohan said. “One of the complaints we get that we try to keep a handle on is panhandling. We have had incidents at the Levy where people stop in the public restrooms to clean up. We have a duty to the business owners, residents and visitors who don’t want to be approached and asked for money. But we also have a duty to be compassionate to these folks. You just have to find that balance.”
More and more demands are placed on officers each day as a community’s expectations continue to grow. Officers on the street often are kept running from one call to the next and lack the time to assist homeless community members who are keeping to themselves and out of police business. But many individuals who are not creating calls for service still are unsure where to get help.
For example, Drohan said a lot of homeless individuals lack proper identification – as well as the means to acquire it. Without a birth certificate or social security card, obtaining an ID can be troublesome. Many homeless shelters and organizations require identification to receive services. Drohan encountered a woman in Newport who found herself in just such a predicament with nowhere to go. She was sleeping under a bridge and had surrounded herself with dumpsters to block the bitter cold one night when Drohan found her. She had everything she owned piled on top of her to keep warm, he said. Her husband had died, she didn’t have the documents to get an ID, so she remained on the streets.
That is, until Drohan took it upon himself to help her. He knew that despite not having ID, a local shelter in Covington accepted individuals who were brought in by police referral.
“There are people who can’t help themselves – they don’t know what to do or where to go,” he said. “And sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to do, and it can be hard to give that extra attention. But it all comes back to the overall need. I don’t like to see people suffer and in those situations where they are helpless.”
Compassion and understanding are essential, Bowling Green’s Watts said. The label of homelessness often carries with it a stigma, she said, which includes the assumption that individuals are drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals or deadbeats.
“The reality is nearly everyone lives paycheck to paycheck anymore,” she said. “It’s unfortunate but true. Sometimes people are just waiting to be evicted. Dad lost his job, mom is working part-time, they can’t afford childcare – so all of a sudden they find themselves without a home, sleeping in a car, and still sending their kids to school.
“It’s just sad, and people don’t realize it could happen to anyone,” Watts continued.
In Newport, a handful of residents live in a tent encampment just off the railroad tracks, cloaked in the woods. Drohan said the individuals are residing on city property, but telling them they are trespassing and instructing them to move along is a double-edged sword.
“All of their possessions are in one tent,” Drohan said. “I can get them to move, but where do they go?”
Drohan himself responded to the encampment late last year when the residents became drunk and argumentative, leading to a non-fatal stabbing.
“After that, I had talked to the city about coming in and cutting all the trees back to open up that area,” Drohan said. “But then they will just move farther back in the woods. And when we do have problems, it would be harder to get back in there.
“I know some people think they can say, ‘Just get a job,’ or, ‘McDonald’s is hiring,’” Drohan continued. “But that is just not their lifestyle. They have come this far and they are in this deep. Telling them to get a job is just not going to change things. There are resources out there, but they are slim and stretched very thin.”
The Bigger Picture
Lexington police have come to rely heavily on its local resources, most recently the Office of Homeless Prevention, said Lexington Police Lt. Corey Doane. Developing a relationship with them, the local shelters and other organizations dedicated to serving this population has been a huge help, he said.
Doane agreed with Drohan and Watts that compassion and understanding are critical in assisting the homeless. Through partnering with their local resources and extending a little empathy, Doane said Lexington officers have found in some cases they are dealing with citizens suffering from mental illnesses.
“The public sees somebody acting out, yelling and so forth, and they think they are doing it on purpose,” Doane said. “Through our partnership with Eastern State Hospital, they have a team we can call out and evaluate the individual basically right there on the spot, to see if the resources they have will be able to help get them treatment they need.”
In winter months, Doane said the agency makes an extra effort to identify those in need and provide them with assistance and information. Some individuals will accept a ride to a local shelter, but Doane said some prefer their independence or have other reasons they do not want to go to a shelter.
“The biggest thing is getting officers to understand the bigger picture,” Doane said. “It is easy to get frustrated with the homeless population when you see them on street corners with signs begging for money, or if they sometimes get disorderly. But I doubt these people really want to be doing that; each one has a different story and, one way or another, I highly doubt they chose that life. They may be down on their luck, have dealt with substance abuse or may have burned every bridge they had, and that’s where they’re at on the streets of Lexington.”
Doane sees that bigger picture as an opportunity to help provide long-term solutions. Helping the homeless is most often not a law-and-order issue, he said. Taking someone to jail or looking the other way is ineffective in the long term. After serving as a Lexington officer for the past 11 years, Doane said he has worked to develop more ways to help his community.
“We’re not just looking short term at getting this person away from this business for the night,” he said. “We want to see how, long term, we can help so we aren’t continually coming across this problem and in turn, we’re helping their overall well-being.”