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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
The weather was turning colder in Schenectady, New York, when the call came in: There was a homeless encampment in a patch of woods off a cul-de-sac. Neighbors reported the usual increase in noise, traffic, and garbage. It was Thanksgiving morning, 2020. “It was a quiet day in community services,” says Lieutenant Ryan Macherone, “so we headed down to see if we could see the encampment from the roadway. We had already discussed that we weren’t going to throw anybody out. On Thanksgiving morning, we’re not going to do that, we’re just going to make contact and connect them with services.”
As they approached the encampment, a resident happened to be starting down the path into the woods. “He actually asked us for money because he didn’t realize we were police officers,” reports Sergeant Nick Mannix. “I thought, ‘This is great,’ so I jumped on it and explained. He freaked out. He said, ‘Oh, I’m in trouble. I didn’t realize who you were.’”
Sgt. Mannix and Lt. Macherone were able to calm the individual down and continue the conversation. “Because I do PIO [public information officer] work,” said Macherone, “we had put out an alert about a church who was doing a to-go meal because of the pandemic. We pulled up the flyer and called the church and asked if they had meals. We asked the guy, if we can get you a warm meal, would you want that? He said yes, so we called the church and asked if they could make up some extra meals. The church said yes, and we went and got the meals. We brought the food back and handed it off and that was that.” They delivered the meals and left for the day.
However, that conversation would grow into a community intervention that ultimately managed to get 13 individuals into housing with eight more soon to enter. It was not a fast process. With support from his lieutenant and his chief, Sgt. Mannix reached out to the neighbors. “I was able to sit down and talk to the neighbors and say, ‘This is what I want to do but it’s gonna take some time and I really think we can make a difference’ and they were okay with it. They realized that just pushing them out wasn’t going to help. I can’t tell you how amazing it was. I don’t want to overuse that word, but it was so special.” The neighbors agreed to let the Schenectady Police Department (SPD) reach out to other local service providers in an effort to secure services for the residents of the encampment.
Lt. Macherone described the process, which was largely organic: “Sergeant Mannix started making connections with all the agencies we work with: New Choices Recovery Center, DSS network, and they really began working on the needs of the individuals who lived back there. It’s usually multifaceted–it’s not just homelessness. If the first problem is that someone has no ID, how do we get them an ID? Sergeant Mannix found someone living rough because that person had cats and couldn’t take them to a shelter. Our partner agencies were putting their boots on in the winter and going out there to meet people where they were at.”
Sgt. Mannix concurred: “They showed up, nice shoes and heels, and it’s muddy, and they just jumped right in. Seven-plus agencies all came together for these people in need—it was really special. My chief and lieutenant said, ‘We trust you, work your magic or whatever your deal is, the mayor was on board and the city council is okay with it.’ The people in the encampment trusted us enough. They’ve been in the system before and they weren’t the most optimistic about what we were trying to do but they trusted me enough to try.”
Using a coalition-based wraparound approach to care, the PD and partners were, over the course of a year, able to start housing individuals not only from the first encampment but also from subsequently reported encampments. “It was a long process,” says Sgt. Mannix. “It was four to six months of me going back there and it was the dead of winter and it was subzero temperatures and I thought, you know we could arrest them and Code Blue them and set up rooms in the hospital but I didn’t want to. Some of our service providers set up warm rooms and showers to change and make sure they got to doctor’s appointments, and so we continued to hike them in and out. Sometimes there are substance use disorders or mental health issues and you can see that. As police officers, you don’t want to force the issue, so sometimes that means listening like a social worker, listening to crazy stories, what they’ve been going through, it’s crazy and heartbreaking.”
Lt. Macherone reported similar conversations: “It’s a very different thing for an officer to sit across the table from someone who says, ‘I’m not going to make it another week. I need help.’ That changes things. The idea of what a police officer is is changing. We really have to ask ourselves what questions we are asking in interviews and what direction this department is heading. Asking officers not, ‘Have you ever been in a fight before’ but ‘How are you going to make the city better during your time here?’”
The initiative is still largely coalition-based rather than institutionalized, but both the need and the proficiency are growing. “We just found another encampment,” says Sgt. Mannix, “so we’ve been making contact over the last few months and they just agreed to go into housing. Making these connections with service providers has been huge. We could do what we’ve been doing but it would have been so hard without them.”
Sgt. Mannix and Lt. Macherone emphasize that the success of their efforts was dependent on the consent of the entire community: The neighborhood agreed to let them work the problem, local leadership at the City and PD were supportive, and service providers were eager to lend expertise and physical assistance to the cause. The rest of the success was just patience and good, old-fashioned relationship building. According to Mannix, “Ninety-nine point nine percent of our job is talking to people. Show them that you are a police officer but you are also a person, too, and that we don’t want to arrest our way out of the problem because it doesn’t work.” Sometimes it’s better to start with dinner.
Social Science Analyst
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