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Church State Issues

Phoenix cops force homeless to find God???

Nov 15, 2011

Arizona Republic

Stuart and Miley often turn to local church groups and other faith-based volunteers for temporary assistance -- a significant departure from officers' relationship with such volunteers in the past.

"I reached out to the church groups that were coming here instead of doing what we'd traditionally have to do -- kick them out of the park," Stuart said. "We've put together this whole coalition of churches that are very involved. Bible Baptist Church is kind of heading it up. They have a kitchen, showers, a huge gymnasium, a living space for temporary housing. We're looking at expanding that, doing the work that needs to be done to get the space up to code."

Phoenix police precincts work together to help homeless
Police precinct teams with community to keep park clear

by Maria Polletta - Nov. 15, 2011 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

When boundary lines for Phoenix Police Department precincts shifted last year, Mountain View Precinct inherited a problem.

Phoenix Police Officer shakes down Robin Elerick, who is homeless, in Mayor Margret Hance Park Homeless people were crowding Margaret T. Hance Park -- previously part of the Central City Precinct -- and residents of nearby neighborhoods felt unsafe.

"Things just really got out of control," said park manager Brian Flanigan. The park, at Central Avenue and Culver Street, "almost looked like a campground at times," he said. "You'd be stepping over bodies."

The situation worsened when the parks department lost employees because of budget cuts, leaving parks such as Hance with minimal security, Flanigan said. And initial attempts by police at quick fixes, such as arrest sweeps, proved temporary.

"Every now and then, we'll try a zero-tolerance approach, which will occasionally displace the problem," said Mountain View Commander Glen Gardner. "But one of the things we've recognized as a department is that you can't arrest your way out of most problems. A lot of these issues have deep-rooted social causes, and that's where it becomes really important to ... come up with a solution that's long-term."

About two months ago, precinct officials decided to try a more individualized approach. The effort, part of Phoenix's Street Crime Reduction Program, focuses arrests on career criminals and repeat offenders while connecting others who are simply down on their luck to appropriate local resources.

Mountain View Officer Rusty Stuart, who has studied Phoenix homeless populations for years and successfully implemented a similar effort at Steele Indian School Park, was a natural fit to head the Hance Park initiative, Gardner said. Area volunteers and employees from city departments such as parks, law and human services also have pledged their support.

The situation at Hance is unique not only because of the sheer number of homeless people who gather there, but also because of the diversity of the park's homeless population, according to Stuart and other city officials.

"Every now and then, we'll have an individual who is a real bad guy, and we're able to put together a case to show he has no intention of changing his lifestyle," Gardner said. "But other people are out there just because of mental illnesses or economic circumstances."

Human-services caseworker Jessica Miley is the primary contact for the second group of people, many of whom have initially been hesitant to trust her, she said.

"Some of these people have been lost in the system and have been on the streets 10, 20 years," Miley said. "They're like 'Oh, I've been told that before. I've been promised that before. Everybody keeps telling me and nobody does anything.' "

Since getting involved at Hance, Miley has referred more than 20 people to temporary housing and other resources, working as a go-between for homeless people, their former and potential employers, housing officials and others.

"I set aside time for initial meetings, and I also take them to a Social Security appointment, a doctor's appointment, that sort of thing," she said. "I'll start with getting them documentation that's going to be required to apply for things or benefits and move from there. I'll go through all the necessary channels to get to our clients off the street."

Stuart and Miley often turn to local church groups and other faith-based volunteers for temporary assistance -- a significant departure from officers' relationship with such volunteers in the past.

"I reached out to the church groups that were coming here instead of doing what we'd traditionally have to do -- kick them out of the park," Stuart said. "We've put together this whole coalition of churches that are very involved. Bible Baptist Church is kind of heading it up. They have a kitchen, showers, a huge gymnasium, a living space for temporary housing. We're looking at expanding that, doing the work that needs to be done to get the space up to code."

And for those homeless people "who just won't stop, won't listen, won't take the services offered and continue to break the law," community prosecutor Barbara Parascandola is standing by.

Parascandola, with the city prosecutor's office, has been assigned to handle issues with repeat offenders, defined as people with five related arrests in the last year.

So far, only one person has been referred to Parascandola.

Though development of the effort at Hance Park is still in progress, Mountain View is already looking at using a similar approach at other parks.

Stuart was recently assigned a partner, and together they are designing a training program so police officers can implement the approach in other parts of town.