As he picked his way through a tent city lining a creek bed Thursday afternoon, Oklahoma City police Lt. Bobby Thompkins called out to see if anyone was there.
No one answered. It’s common to find the homeless camp just north of General Pershing Boulevard empty in the middle of the afternoon, Thompkins said. Most of the people who stay there go to day shelters during daylight hours, then come back to the encampment at night, he said.
Police have known about the camp for about a year. But it’s likely people have been staying there longer than that. Now, the department is trying a new way of working with the city’s homeless population.
“We’re finding we can’t arrest our way out of it,” Thompkins said. “We need to try something else.”
Thompkins and two other officers — Staff Sgt. Clinton Garst and Master Sgt. Paul Camacho — make up the department’s new homeless outreach team. The team is designed to connect Oklahoma City’s homeless population with housing and other services in the hopes of getting them off the street.
The team represents a new way of addressing the city’s homeless problem, Thompkins said. In the past, officers routinely arrested homeless people for minor violations. Those people were fined for those violations and, when they failed to pay the fine, they ended up in jail.
“It was just kind of a vicious cycle of costing taxpayers money,” he said.
The department launched the team last month as a pilot program. The three officers, who are all on special assignment from the Bricktown bicycle patrol unit, visit homeless camps and speak with the people there. Officers explain that they aren’t there to arrest people at the camps for minor violations or check for active warrants. They offer to take them to homeless shelters or help them get other services.
People are generally reluctant to speak with officers or accept help at first, Thompkins said. Many of them don’t trust police, or they don’t want to change the way they live. It can often take as many as 50 visits before officers convince a person to accept help, he said.
Although the idea is new to Oklahoma City, it’s existed elsewhere for several years. Colorado Springs police launched a similar program in 2008, after city officials noticed a sharp increase in the number of homeless people camping in public places in town. Oklahoma City police patterned their pilot program after the Colorado Springs model.
Lt. Catherine Buckley, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs Police Department, said the homeless outreach teams have been a valuable resource for other officers, as well as the community at large.
When officers encounter homeless people around town, they often turn to homeless outreach officers to connect those people with whatever resources they need, Buckley said. Because homeless outreach officers specialize in homeless issues, they generally know more about what resources are available for those people, Buckley said.
“For us, it has been fantastic,” she said.
Homeless people commonly camp along two streams that run through Colorado Springs, Buckley said. Camping on public land is illegal in Colorado Springs, so homeless outreach teams go through camps and warn people a few days before they plan to sweep through and clean up the area.
Officers work with a nonprofit group to clean up the streams, collecting important things like birth certificates, VA paperwork and family pictures, so they won’t be thrown in the trash.
Although Oklahoma City’s team is in its pilot phase, Thompkins said he hopes to see the department expand the program and make it permanent. As the team continues to work with homeless people around the city, he hopes they’ll come to trust officers and accept the help they offer.
“We have a long way to go as far as different things we want to try,” he said. “All we can do is just keep trying.”