New police unit to assist, not always arrest, homeless

Officer Cory Tomps with the Grand Junction Police Department walks through Whitman Park, where he and two other officers will spend plenty of time on the homeless beat.  The park is frequented by transients. The cops’ full-time duties as advocates for the indigent population begin in January.

Local police plan to shorten their arm’s-length approach to homeless issues by adopting a philosophy that works in concert with transients. A twofold effort by police is designed to help homeless folks access services and to assuage community concerns about transients.

Citing homeless people for petty crimes is not a solution nor is jailing them when they can’t pay the fines.

Already, Grand Junction Police Department officers spend ample time working with and enforcing laws among the area’s indigent population, some of whom live in camps near the Colorado River.

As the Grand Valley’s homeless population appears to be surging, the Police Department is poised to dedicate three full-time officers as homeless advocates.

“The ultimate goal is to build relationships,” police officer Cory Tomps said. “The goal is not enforcement. It’s to help people.”

Come January, Tomps, along with Cpl. Jeff Davis and officer Cindy Cohn, will be assigned to the duty. They will dress in plain clothes, but they will identify themselves as police, not working in an undercover capacity.

Grand Junction police are borrowing the model from the Colorado Springs Police Department, which has reported huge gains, including thousands of dollars in savings, by helping its homeless population get treatment, housing and jobs.

For the past two years, three officers there have helped find shelter for 574 transients and reunited 145 homeless people with out-of-state families.

The Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT, helped 105 people become self-sufficient with 131 unemployed transients find work, according to the department’s website.

Efforts at the Front Range department started commanding the attention of law-enforcement agencies from around the state and nation after it received the 2010 Herman Goldstein Award for its Problem Orientated Policing model.

Grand Junction’s three officers traveled to Colorado Springs earlier this year and were trained by the Homeless Outreach Team.

“This has enabled housing for hundreds and relocated others, not just by putting them on a bus like Grand Junction,” Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper told Grand Junction City Council members during a recent meeting. “That’s the most valuable element. They had so many of these well-intentioned homeless groups, but they don’t work well together. This group is getting services to the homeless.”

While it’s not certain how Grand Junction’s model will operate, officers first are tasked with building trust among the homeless. That will be an important first step as the department attempts to reform its image toward indigent residents after three police officers were fired in June for vandalizing homeless camps near the Colorado River.

Getting local government to buy in long has been viewed as a missing piece by several local groups taking up the cause against homelessness. A coordinated effort between local homeless-advocacy groups is in the thick of developing a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

“Trying to get the city and county at the table has been tough going, but it’s huge when the Police Department comes and the mayor comes to facilitate meetings,” said Karen Sjoberg, director of Grand Valley Peace & Justice, one entity involved in the planning effort.

The three officers slated to be homeless advocates attended one of those recent meetings, and Sjoberg said the officers’ plan sounds more humanitarian than enforcement-driven, which would be welcome.

Housing First, a group of local advocates for the homeless, has been the only other organized group to regularly interact with the local homeless population who live in public spaces.

Group members lately have been conducting night patrols, attempting to get services for homeless people who may be unprepared to handle winter’s freezing nighttime temperatures.

A homeless woman living in a van near Whitman Park, sandwiched between Ute and Pitkin avenues on Fourth and Fifth streets, said she would be willing to accept help from a police officer.

However, the woman, who didn’t want to be identified, said she harbors resentment of some local police officers after being charged and convicted with a felony charge for distributing drugs from her van at the same park.

The woman said she is guilty of possessing marijuana, which helps with her medical condition, but she never sold the drug to anyone else.

“If they turn out to be decent cops, somebody will trust them,” she said. “If not, they’ll find out real quick.”

The three homeless-advocate positions were filled by officers from other areas in the department and are not new jobs on the force. Tomps, for example, is moving over from the department Community Advocacy Program.

Tomps said the goal will be connecting homeless residents to services, even giving people rides or providing other help to break the cycle of homelessness for those who are ready to make a change.

“We can’t want it more than them,” he said. “It’s got be a hand-up approach.”


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