Each year police departments from around the world travel to the International Problem Oriented Policing (POP) Conference with hopes of taking home the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem Oriented Policing. This year, the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) took home the top prize for the efforts of their Homeless Outreach Team, in a presentation on September 29th in Arlington, Texas.
|Colorado Springs faced a chronic safety and disorder problem stemming from a growing number of homeless camps along the city’s recreational trails and waterways.|
The Goldstein Award, which honors Professor Herman Goldstein and his theory of problem-oriented policing, recognizes “innovative and effective problem-oriented policing projects that have achieved measurable success in resolving recurring specific crime, disorder or public safety problems.” Colorado Springs faced a chronic safety and disorder problem stemming from a growing number of homeless camps along the city’s recreational trails and waterways. By 2008, it was estimated that more than 500 homeless individuals were living in tents on public property. Citizens regularly complained that the camps were unsightly, and many felt the trails were unsafe to use. In addition, waste generated by the camps represented a not insignificant public health risk. According to Commander Kurt Pillard, the camps“…were a contentious issue. On one side, the community was concerned about fire hazards, victimization, and sanitation. On the other side, homeless advocates were concerned about the rights of homeless individuals and a perceived lack of shelter space—and the police were stuck in the middle of these two distinct perspectives.”
Community efforts to clean up the camps had ceased in the face of questions about possible civil rights violations raised by local homeless advocacy groups and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). CSPD also had stopped issuing citations for trespassing to the homeless campers while the City Attorney conducted a review of the trespassing ordinance. The well-publicized end to these enforcement activities actually led to an increase in the number of campers and CSPD was unable to balance the many conflicting interests: citizens who wanted to use the trails and felt they couldn’t because of the camps, advocates who were concerned about the health risks to those living in the camps as waste piled up, and those who were defending the rights of the campers to be on public property.
Looking to find a new solution to the problem, CSPD formed a three officer Homeless Outreach Team (HOT). They began their work researching the history, nature, and extent of homelessness in the city. Along with their more traditional research on the statistics of homelessness, the services that were available for the homeless in the city, and analysis of calls for service associated with transient populations, the HOT also conducted a number of open community forums and surveyed 100 homeless people over the course of a month. Among other important facts, the HOT learned that while the city boasted a wide variety of resources, most of the homeless were not actually aware of what was available. There were strong collaborative relationships among the city’s service providers, but that meant nothing while those in the camps remained unaware of their options.
The HOT teamed up with Homeward Pikes Peak—the agency tasked with coordinating a strategic plan for homeless services in the region—to develop a permanent solution that would take into consideration all the competing interests. The key strategies the team chose to pursue included:
The HOT began patrolling the camps not to force people out but to introduce themselves to the homeless individuals. They sought to understand the unique and varied challenges those in the camps faced, and to help connect them with services that would assist them in getting off the street. One homeless individual contacted by HOT indicated that he possessed the skills and experience to work, and had actually been offered a job, however he did not have the necessary tools. After verifying that a job offer had actually been extended, HOT linked this individual with the appropriate service provider and helped to arrange for a voucher for the needed equipment. The individual involved is still employed and is now living in an apartment instead of a camp.
At the same time, work began with the City Attorney’s Office, the ACLU, and various homeless advocacy groups to draft an enforceable and fair public camping ordinance. It took many months, but consensus was eventually reached and a new ordinance was passed by the City Council in February 2010. Procedures for ordinance enforcement were also adopted to ensure that those found camping were given sufficient notice to vacate, provided access to alternative shelter, and in the event they did not move and a second summons was issued, that their personal property was stored at a local facility overseen by an advocate until the individual could claim it.
Extensive advertisement throughout the camps of the new ordinance preceded renewed enforcement efforts. During a voluntary compliance period, many of the homeless individuals took advantage of the city services on offer and left the camps. When the HOT and their partners at Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful moved in, they were able to move quickly and efficiently in cleaning up the waste and abandoned property. Trails and parkland were cleared and made safe for recreation, and the HOT did not need to make a single arrest for a camping violation.
Since the project began, the HOT has made over 2,000 outreach contacts and close to 1,000 service referrals. More than 500 people have been found alternative shelter, 100 have been helped to employment and self-sufficiency, and over 100 others have been helped to return to families in other states. Forty vacant camps have been cleaned up, and calls for service associated with the transient population have declined. Particularly important, citizens are happy to again have access to clean and safe public trails, homeless and civil rights advocates are satisfied with the resolutions to the earlier enforcement problems, and many of the homeless individuals have expressed their appreciation of the efforts of the HOT. When asked what the most rewarding aspect of the project was, Commander Pillard said, “The homelessness issue was humanized by the involvement of HOT. It wasn’t just another problem. It became a personal mission of the officers involved to get individuals the help that they desperately needed, and they were tremendously successful at it!”
Mike Scott of the Center for Problem Oriented Policing presented the award to representatives of the Colorado Springs PD and Homeward Pikes Peak at the 21st Annual POP Conference, with Herman Goldstein also on hand to congratulate the team. Five other finalist agencies also earned a trip to Arlington to present their projects in front of the judging panel and hundreds of conference attendees. The presentations of all six finalists will join those of previous years on the POP Center website, www.popcenter.org, later this year.
Senior Social Science Analyst
The COPS Office
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