What's Behind SAPD's Shifting Approach to Homelessness

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Summer Muniz was perched on a curb outside a Valero gas station, weaving palm fronds into roses she would later sell to tourists downtown, when the pair of middle-aged San Antonio Police Department officers walked up and crouched down beside her. They weren't in uniform, but flashed their badges at the 19-year-old woman, whose tired face was swollen from crying. To Muniz, it felt like the obvious finale to an already awful day.
“How can we help you?” she remembers them asking. She didn’t know where to begin.

Muniz had been living under a West Side overpass, strung out on drugs, jobless, and had a warrant out for her arrest due to unpaid fines. The week before, a man had stolen her husband’s wallet, which held the couple’s only forms of identification (a fire had already devoured their birth certificates and social security cards earlier that year). Earlier that day, Muniz discovered she was five months pregnant with a baby girl. She was certain she’d have to give the baby up for adoption. 

“I was scared. I needed options, I needed something different,” she told the Current. “I wasn’t doing anything with my life.”

She figured the SAPD officers would only add to her troubles. Muniz warily told them about the baby, about the tent she shared with her husband, and about the drugs. Officer Joe Farris, the shorter of the two who hid his shiny bald head under a dark cap, nodded in understanding as she spoke. Muniz recalled Farris' partner, Officer Monty McCann, a broad-shouldered blonde with a rare, toothy smile, telling her that day: “What you need to remember is, you’re not doing this on your own.” 

Within days, Muniz was seen by an OB-GYN with her newly-acquired Medicaid insurance, sleeping in a dorm-like shelter bed, enrolled in a detox program, and filling out paperwork to get a new ID. The officers had taken her husband to a hospital after learning his leg was seriously infected. He signed up for Medicaid to pay for an unexpected surgery. Meanwhile, the officers found Muniz a stroller and crib, and helped her land a temp job. 

By the time she gave birth to her daughter four months later, Muniz and her husband were living in their own apartment, off drugs and had reliable incomes. 

“I got to bring her home to my own house, not a shelter,” Muniz said. “I would have never imagined that.” 

Muniz isn’t the only person who’s been pulled out of homelessness with the help of the veteran cops. 

In fact, ever since McCann and Farris formed SAPD’s Homeless Outreach Positive Encounters (HOPE) team two years ago, they’ve seen dozens of people navigate their way out of addiction, mental health crises and homelessness. 

It's a kind of outreach relatively unheard of in San Antonio. Aside from their two-person team, there are about six other people in the city whose sole job is to seek out and build relationships with the homeless, in hopes of eventually linking them with needed services.  

Despite the city’s ambitious goals, the number of “chronically homeless” individuals — people who have been without housing for more than a year — living on San Antonio streets has only gone up over the past decade. McCann and Farris, who have been on the force for nearly 25 years apiece, have watched first-hand as the city’s laws to crack down on homelessness cycle the same folks through the courts and spit them right back onto the street where they began. They say it’s clearly a broken system.

Currently, the city has no comprehensive plan to end homelessness. In the past, many felt the directive was basically for police to arrest homelessness out of existence.  But in recent years, as cops discovered their arrests did little to fix the problem, SAPD has turned more toward advocacy and away from reactionary arrests and ticket-writing. Longtime homeless advocates, previously critical of SAPD’s handling of the homeless,  say this new approach has already begun to disrupt the feedback loop of chronic homelessness for some. 

The city put the police on the front lines of homelessness prevention — and they’re the ones who have to figure out what does and doesn’t work.

People might argue that it's not a job for law enforcement. But for now, it's one of the few solutions to a decade-long problem. And because of that, SAPD has begun to shift how the entire department sees some of its most perennial clientele, the city’s homeless population.

***

In February 2005, a month after then-Mayor Ed Garza approved the city’s ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness, the San Antonio City Council met to discuss what they called a preventative strategy. Council eventually voted on new city rules that did more to criminalize homelessness than to actually help the destitute. The four ordinances, penned by then downtown councilman Roger Flores, would make it a crime to sit or lie down on a sidewalk, urinate in public, camp in public, or “aggressively” solicit for money. Those who disobeyed would be stuck with a fine of up to $500.

Flores admitted the goal was to help downtown business owners.

City leaders knew – or should have known – that San Antonio already didn’t have enough shelter space for the city’s homeless population. It was one of the findings a city-commissioned study unveiled in the process of crafting San Antonio’s ten-year plan to end homelessness. Only former Councilwoman Patti Radle saw the irony of shooing homeless people off the streets just as city leaders were learning how few options they had.

“We were acknowledging that homeless people did not have alternatives, and then we were punishing the homeless for behavior that they could not help,” Radle told Justin Cook, a St. Mary’s University law student who eventually penned an article for the university’s law journal, The Scholar, that concluded two of the city’s four new ordinances cracking down on behavior associated with homelessness were unconstitutional. 

“It is impossible for a homeless person in San Antonio to avoid committing a crime in order to satisfy the basic human need for sleep,” Cook argued. “Forcing an innocent person into making such a choice is both cruel and unusual.”

SAPD officers started churning out citations across the city, and San Antonio's homeless population started drowning in tickets and fines they couldn’t hope to pay. After paying them off through community service or time in jail, they’d often return to the streets, where it was almost inevitable they'd get more tickets and fines for breaking the same rules. 

“It’s the definition of insanity,” says Farris, who was on SAPD bike patrol for 15 years before joining the department's homeless response team. “We were doing the same thing over and over and over again and still expected a different outcome.” 

By 2014, SAPD was writing an average of 6,300 citations a year for violations of these four city laws directed at the homeless and poor. An investigation by the Current that year discovered one homeless man who had received more than 1,000 citations alone. By 2015, when the city’s ten-year plan was supposed to have “ended chronic homelessness,” the number of chronically homeless people had only grown. In 2005, 16 percent of the city's 1,600 homeless population were considered chronically homeless. By 2015, chronically homeless people accounted for about a quarter of the nearly 2,800 people living on the streets or in shelters. 

Farris and McCann, who was also a bike patrol officer at the time of the city’s crackdown on homelessness, were fed up with enforcing laws that didn’t seem to make a dent in the overall homeless population. Their supervisor shared their frustrations and, with the support of SAPD Chief William McManus, asked if they’d be interested in trying something new. Eventually, the two officers would lead a pilot project to disrupt the tired cycle of what Farris calls “arrest, ticket, or move along.”


***

"Be creative.” “Think outside the box.” Those were the only two instructions McCann and Farris remember being given when first asked to run the department’s two-man HOPE team in 2015.

The two traded their their bike helmets and uniforms for a t-shirt and slacks (McCann often wears cowboy boots that match the Texas state flag, and Farris a ball cap). They were given the keys to one long-neglected patrol car that had been rejected by every other unit. A thin coat of white paint poorly concealed the SAPD logo emblazoned on its sides, and a family of squirrels had made a home of the glove compartment. Their unit, still nestled within the bike patrol department, had no budget and very little guidance.

They'd have to learn as they went along. “We aren’t counselors, we don’t have a background in mental health or counseling, we’re just a couple of patrolmen,” Farris says. But the two quickly discovered there’s no one right way to help homeless people. 

The two officers spent the first year learning about the city’s homeless safety net by meeting with every organization that works in the field, and getting to know most of downtown’s chronically homeless population, business owners, city staffers working to craft a new homelessness plan, and fellow officers familiar with the issue. They tried to find the biggest roadblocks keeping chronically homeless people from seeing a doctor, accepting drug detox, or moving into a shelter. They heard from nonprofits struggling to connect with resistant clients or shelter staffers tired of breaking up fights or finding used needles in their cramped facilities. 

What they also found was a system brimming with needy people and organizations wanting to help them — but no simple way to bring the two together. 

“There seemed to be this disconnect between the service providers and the homeless,” McCann said. For instance, the list of homeless services cops were told to give homeless people listed programs that were no longer in existence or whose phone number had changed. If a pair of longtime policemen couldn't easily understand how to access these services, how could they expect the homeless to? 

The two officers decided they could act as a sort of trail guide for people looking for a way off the streets. They’d regularly check in with people living downtown to make sure they made appointments or showed up to court. They’d accompany people to a detox center, shelter or social services office to help them fill out paperwork (a surprising number of the city’s homeless population are illiterate, they discovered) or explain any confusing parts of the process that could make a person give up out of frustration. Some of the people they helped relapsed or returned to the streets, but others have since graduated from rehab, landed full-time jobs, or found permanent housing.

Two years in, the officers are already filling longtime gaps in the city’s network of homeless services, like with their ID recovery program.

Every Tuesday, the HOPE team holds office hours in the lobby of SAPD's downtown headquarters to meet with people who don't have any form of identification. For the homeless, it’s a common problem — perhaps their ID was stolen while they slept in a park, forgotten on the bus, taken by an officer during an arrest and never returned. According to local service providers, it’s the number one reason so many people are stuck in the cycle of homelessness.

“It’s a chicken and the egg scenario,” Farris said. “You need a driver’s license to apply for a birth certificate, a birth certificate to get a social security card, and a social security card to get a driver’s license.” Without any of these, he adds, it’s near impossible to apply for any type of social service help — from food stamps to maternity care to housing assistance. You certainly can’t apply for a job. It’s a vicious cycle the HOPE team wants to disrupt.

Their fix? Make their own ID. At police headquarters, the officers use a person’s fingerprint to pull up their criminal background (for the homeless, it’s rare to not have one), snap a photo of the person with an iPhone, and cobble together a DIY ID on paper stamped with the SAPD seal. They sign it and take the client to get a copy of their birth certificate at a city office building down the street using the new ID. Farris and McCann wait with the person in the winding line of other people applying for birth certificates or passports until its their turn at the front window. Most of the office staff know the two officers well by now, and greet them with a warm smile and nod as they look over their document. The men have an agreement with the staffers to accept this unusual piece of paper as a proof of a person’s identity. 

If the officers were caught falsifying someone's identity, they could lose their jobs. “We’re putting our badges on the line to vouch for these people. [The staff] respects that,” McCann said.  

With a birth certificate, a person can easily apply for a new driver’s license the same day. And just like that, their ID problems are solved. Houston and San Antonio’s police departments appear to be the only ones in the country that offer this kind of fix. Bill Hubbard, director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, the agency that manages the city's federal homeless grant money, believes the ID program couldn't work without HOPE. 

“They have become irreplaceable navigators,” Hubbard said. “They saw the system wasn’t working, and they changed the rules.”

***

Joe Touvouze had been living in the woods for a year before the HOPE team stumbled upon him in November 2016. The 30-year-old’s sunken face bore the scars and scabs that come with meth addiction, and it was clear he hadn’t had a good meal in weeks. “I looked terrible,” Touvouze recalls. But he wasn’t in the right headspace to accept the officers’ help. He agreed to meet them for a doctor’s appointment later that month, but never showed. “I didn’t have the motivation,” he says. “But when I decided to change, I knew who to call.”

Touvouze has been clean and sober since March when he called Farris and McCann, who set him up with a room at Haven for Hope, the seven-year-old city shelter that’s quickly become San Antonio’s one-stop-shop for the homeless. He ordered a pair of new glasses through the program’s health clinic, which also gave him a medication to help his allergies. He’s replaced his lost driver’s license. He found a job working in the organization’s donation warehouse, and spends his free time volunteering with Haven’s small homeless outreach team. He still tries to see Farris and McCann at least once a week. “They’re my mentors,” he says. 

It’s stories like Touvouze’s that keep Farris and McCann engaged and motivated as their tiny team takes on the city’s steadily growing homeless population. They argue their job is one of the most rewarding in all of SAPD.

“For normal patrolmen, you might make an arrest but never know what happens after that,” McCann said. “You never have that closure. Here, it’s different.” 

They say that helping homeless people necessarily something that's taught at the training academy. McCann calls what new cadets get “paramilitary style training” – training for survival. That’s why, when they aren’t roaming through town in their clunky patrol car, the two officers hold trainings for SAPD cadets and officers on how to interact with the homeless and how to help get them off the streets without writing a ticket. 

HOPE used SAPD’s crisis intervention training — a program that teaches officers how to detect signs of mental illness and interact with someone who may be going through a mental health crisis — as a model. Originally dubbed “hug-a-thug” training by skeptical officers, SAPD’s crisis intervention program has received national praise for linking offenders to mental health treatment at the county’s Center for Health Care Services, rather than tossing them in jail. SAPD Chief William McManus made the training mandatory in 2010. Few people are calling it names anymore. 

McManus and Farris were some of the first to embrace crisis training. Still, despite the fact that some 70 percent of the people who are taken to the city’s mental health facility by police are homeless, SAPD’s crisis training doesn’t instruct officers or clinicians on how to respond to homeless people.

“If you’re homeless, you’re in crisis,” McCann says. “The mere state of homelessness is traumatic. It needs to be treated that way.”

Mental health experts agree. “Homelessness can strike a different kind of crisis within a person,” says Amanda Miller, a psychologist with the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, a group of county mental health clinicians that accompany officers responding to a 911 call that may involve a mental health crisis. For instance, she says, living in a perpetually unstable environment can throw off a person’s orientation — people often miss appointments because they lose track of time or forget what day it is. They may not remember to take their medication or may miss a good night’s sleep. It’s an environment that seems to work directly against a person’s mental health. 

“Stability is key to mental health recovery...or any kind of recovery,” Miller says. “But you don’t get stability when you’re homeless.”

***

When Sgt. Farris was still on bike patrol, he’d often compare homeless people to animals. He remembers one particularly hot afternoon when he arrested a homeless man for some long-forgotten crime — and had to pat the man down before snapping handcuffs on him. He felt what he believed to be a credit card in the man’s back pocket, and asked him to confirm. Farris had guessed wrong.
“It was feces,” Farris recalls. “He had diarrhea from eating garbage, and in the Texas heat in had turned into a dry, solid piece. It was repulsive.”

At the time, Farris couldn’t fathom why the man — or any homeless person, for that matter —didn’t care enough about himself enough to take care of basic human hygiene. “I remember thinking, ‘Even my dog knows how to clean itself. If these people don’t care about themselves, why should I?’” he says.
Then he spent the night at Haven for Hope.

According to Farris, Haven for Hope had wanted an officer to go undercover at their shelter to figure out why some homeless people were refusing their services – “like a secret shopper of sorts,” he says. All he was supposed to do was to stay at the shelter a few nights and write a report — no big deal. Going in, he expected to spend time with the same “repulsive,” criminal animals he knew from the streets. Instead, Farris was met by welcoming strangers who shared with him their stories of how they ended up at the shelter. Sometimes it was just one hiccup that sent them spiraling into homelessness, like a divorce, an injury, or losing a steady job.

“The blinders were suddenly taken off. I finally saw the homeless as human beings,” he says.

HOPE’s role in the city’s safety net, however, has left some advocates questioning if their work is really something for law enforcement to handle. Miller said while she values HOPE’s work, she's not sure it's a long term solution."We depend on officers when we're responding to mental health crisis that gets physical," Miller said. "But I think HOPE needs to be a professional unit outside of the department."

Regardless of who’s providing the outreach, this kind of work won’t take off if there’s nowhere to house folks interested in accepting the help. It’s something San Antonio is still struggling to piece together. What homeless people need the most, SARAH's Hubbard says, is “permanent supportive housing” — a model that couples affordable housing with on-site supportive services tailored to the tenant’s needs, like mental health counselors or a detox clinic. This type of housing is especially key for people deemed “chronically homeless” — meaning they’ve been homeless for over a year or at least four separate times over the course of a year. That’s because most of the chronically homeless are struggling with serious mental illness or substance abuse issues, factors that don’t just fade when you’re handed a house key. This population needs serious support to successfully transition into housing and the responsibilities that come with it, advocates say.

In 2016, out of the 1,410 beds available in San Antonio permanent supportive housing units, only 260 of them were reserved for people dealing with chronic homelessness. While the total number of homeless people living in San Antonio slightly dropped from 2,781 to 2,743 between 2016 and 2017, the number of those considered chronically homeless has crept upwards from 527 to 557.

The city, with help from SARAH, is hoping to expand the number of supportive housing units for the homeless — but has no set timeline on when that will happen. In 2015, when it appeared San Antonio’s ten-year plan failed to end chronic homelessness, the city’s Human Services department proposed a “Homeless Comprehensive Plan” to city council. It largely focused on ending veteran homelessness and rewriting city rules on giving the homeless free food. While the city did successfully curtail veteran homelessness in 2016, there doesn’t seem to be a concrete plan to help any other homeless people on the books. There’s no information on any homelessness plan on the city’s website.
Human Services Director Melody Woosley said that she and Chief McManus plan on updating the city council on the state of the city’s homelessness plan in June. In the meantime, there have been mixed messages coming from some parts of the city.

In September, outgoing Councilman Mike Gallagher said he believed the city was home to “professional panhandlers” who weren't really homeless, and proposed SAPD do something about it. In 2015, City Manager Sheryl Sculley asked SAPD officers to specifically conduct a homeless sweep in front of her luxury downtown condominium. Six months ago, a police officer admitted to giving a homeless man an actual “fecal sandwich” as a joke (he was fired).
“Like anywhere, we have our assholes here in San Antonio,” Farris says. “But there are far more good officers in the department.”

Understanding the homeless through outreach still remains a hard sell for some officers. John Cooley, who leads SAPD’s crisis intervention team, said HOPE is where the crisis intervention program was ten years ago. “They’re still getting ridicule and skepticism from other officers, but it’s expected. This kind of change takes time,” he says. “But you have the right guys for the job.”

There’s already one significant, measurable change. In the past year, SAPD officers have written a total of 1,861 tickets for the four laws that most often impact homeless people. Compare that to 2014, when cops wrote around 6,300 tickets for breaking those same laws.

“We have a duty and a requirement to uphold the law,” McCann said. “But at the same time, you have to decide — are you going to take a black and white approach to the law or are you going to accept you’re dealing with living and breathing human beings, and able to use your discretion and apply the law when appropriate?”

The HOPE officers have also started trying to calculate their impact, hoping that might convince the department to boost their budget. They’ve often pointed to one man’s story to best illustrate their point. For one year, the two added up how much one 60-year-old homeless man was relying on public services to survive. Trips to detox, time police spent processing arrests and tickets, uninsured trips to the emergency room, hospital visits — in total, the man cost San Antonio taxpayers $43,000 a year. The following year, he found HOPE, and transitioned into housing.

“I believe if the department throws more money at us — in twenty, thirty years, we’ll be in a better place,” McCann says. “It’s like what we tell policemen,” McCann said. “You’re planting seeds. You don’t know what’s going to sprout.”

Summer Muniz believes she'd still be selling palm frond roses along the River Walk if she hadn't met Farris or McCann. She's now working part-time at her temp job to take care of her daughter — a choice she can afford with the aid of state program that helps low-income mothers and the income trickling in from her husband's pizza job. When her baby gets a little bit older, she said, she wants to go to college for criminal justice, so she can work at juvenile facilities. She hasn't completely cut her past out of her life — she still regularly visits the friends she made while she was homeless.

“I try to encourage them to get help. But you have to want to change first, and not all of them do,” she said. “It takes time. It's hard when you don't have anything. You don’t know where to start."


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