“Hello, is anyone home?” Vinnesha Bertola, an outreach program manager at the Institute for Human Services, called toward a makeshift tent tarp at Mother Waldron Park.
She’s part of a team of about 20 outreach workers and police officers in plainclothes who fanned out across the Kakaako park Dec. 20 to warn the homeless of a coming sweep and offer services.
“If you need anything, even if it’s just food or a shower,” Bertola said as she kneels at a tent and offers her card to the person inside.
The Honolulu Police Department officer who flanks Bertola keeps his distance, as do the other officers paired with outreach workers during the excursion. Instead of issuing tickets, they use the time to get to know homeless people and learn new strategies.
Homeless people don’t typically open up to police officers. But an HPD pilot project allows officers to add outreach to their law enforcement duties.
The outreach workers and officers who participate in H.E.L.P. Honolulu usually walk the streets of Chinatown for two hours every other week. They went to Mother Waldron Park for the first time in December to address a recent influx of homeless there.
HPD Lt. Mike Lambert, who oversees the central Honolulu district, created the program in May. Next year, H.E.L.P, which stands for “Health, Efficiency, Long-term Partnerships,” might spread to other parts of Oahu.
Lambert said police in his district became overwhelmed with homeless-related complaints this year. Thirty to forty calls come in every day, he said, and each call takes at least 30 minutes to address.
In his district alone this year, officers issued more than 3,800 citations to people violating park closure hours, having tents or violating the city’s sit-lie ban. They’ve given another 3,177 warnings to people sitting or lying down where doing so is illegal.
Officers have walked around Chinatown with outreach workers 11 times since the program began. Many officers stationed in the downtown area are on a first-name basis with the homeless who live there.
In Chinatown, officers are more talkative with the homeless, said Jean Mooney, an outreach worker with The CHOW Project who joined the December walk-around.
Even if they just stand back and watch, officers benefit from seeing how outreach workers like her engage with homeless people, Bertola said.
“When homeless people encounter police, they’re intimidated,” she said.
Lambert presented the pilot project at a statewide conference on homelessness in November. There, he explained to a crowd of social workers and nonprofit leaders why a strong relationship between the homeless and police will benefit both.
“It’s terrible that they don’t want to report things to us,” he said. “That’s data that we’re missing.”
In the Kakaako park, an outreach worker with Kalihi-Palama Health Center talked to Charlotte Marquez, who sat wrapped up in her sleeping bag under a pavilion. An officer stood outside the shaded area.
In an interview later that afternoon, Marquez said her attitude toward police remained unchanged despite the interaction.
“They just harass the homeless, period,” she said.
Lambert knows it will take more than one encounter to build trust with the homeless.
“What have we done historically? Ushered them along, it’s very likely that we were impersonal about it,” he said. “Why trust us? Why think that now that we’re holding out a carrot that it’s safe to eat?”
Even for an outreach worker, its not uncommon to visit someone on the streets many times before that person is ready for services.
During a H.E.L.P. operation, if someone is ready to go to a shelter, there’s a parol car ready to take them.
More often, an officer and outreach worker talk with homeless individuals, learn their name, their situation and what services they’re already using or could benefit from.
That information goes into a database shared between police and social service agencies so when police encounter people on the streets later, officers can direct them to the appropriate services.
If an outreach worker is looking for someone they’ve lost track of, the database can offer clues to that person’s whereabouts.
“You could probably give me a name and I can find them in the next four hours,” Lambert said. “It’s that type of information that is powerful to the outreach community.”
Since the project launched in May, police have identified 63 individuals and had 95 “meaningful interactions,” meaning multiple interactions with the same people.
On the cloudy December day, Marquez said she wasn’t ready to go to a shelter.
So far, though, seven people have been taken to shelters and four have been connected directly with housing through the police initiative.
Another person was connected with Community Outreach Court, a court program aimed at helping homeless people clear their record.
“It’s the same way that I build rapport, one positive interaction at a time,” said Aashish Hemrajani, an outreach worker for The CHOW Project.
“If they’re able to go with an outreach worker out of uniform and have a positive interaction … then you’ve sort of broken down that wall a little bit. And maybe they’ll just trust that one police officer but you can build on that.”