Sign up today and save up to 83% on a Hartford Courant digital subscription
CT Now

Outreach helps homeless and community

"Hey, Pete, how you doin'?"

A wary and sheepish look, but no answer.

"Have you given any thought to what we talked about, Pete?"

Another wary and sheepish look. Pete rubs his chin, then bites his nails, then rubs his chin again.

A Fort Lauderdale police officer and a reporter are sitting in a patrol car after finding Pete (not his real name) in his usual spot. Most of the homeless stake out a spot of their own, and they're very territorial, Officer Scott Russell explains.

Pete, who is well-known to Russell, is standing alongside the car. His hands are now jammed in his pockets. He looks uncomfortable, embarrassed. When he speaks at all, he mumbles.

But Russell refuses to give up.

"Don't you think you might want to go get a nice place to stay, Pete? Get cleaned up?"

Pete shakes his head. "No, go talk to those people down where you saw me before. Those people are disgusting, the way they live, defecating in their pants and stuff. Go talk to them."

Russell turns to the reporter and explains that Pete's a bit of an elitist in his own way. He's an educated man who once had a family and a good job, and it seems there's a pecking order among the homeless. He may be down on his luck, but he's not like those others, he's not one of them.

At least some of Pete's bad fortune is of his own choosing, however. Russell makes a stunning disclosure: As a Vietnam-era veteran, Pete is eligible for $800 a month in veterans' benefits, but he refuses to simply sign a paper that will enable him to receive the money.

Russell, whose patience could be compared favorably with that of Job, can't fully conceal his frustration with Pete's stubbornness. In the time he has known him, Pete has lost out on about $20,000 in benefits by refusing to sign that paper.

Still, Russell presses on.

"Don't you want to sign that paper we talked about, Pete?" Get that money you got comin' to you?"

"No way. What do I have to do for it?"

"Nothin', man. It's your money. You're a veteran. You earned it."

"Nobody gets nothin' for nothin'," Pete replies, and it's pretty clear he isn't about to change his mind.

Pete hears voices warning him not to take the money, Russell explains. That's the way it is with the mentally ill. It's the kind of thing Russell runs into every day.

He's had more than 300 face-to-face contacts with Pete alone.

Ask anybody about Scott Russell and they'll tell you the same thing: He's a hero.

Russell is the driving force behind the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's Homeless Outreach Program and a later outgrowth, the Crisis Intervention Team, which was developed at the urging of and in conjunction with the Broward County chapter of NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill), the Florida Department of Children & Families, the Broward Regional Health Planning Council and other agencies. Both programs seek to help the mentally disturbed, the emotionally troubled and the down-on-their-luck before they run afoul of the law.

And they work. Russell says the department is recording about 2,400 fewer arrests a year as a direct result of the homeless outreach program, which began in November 1999. The CIT was established about two years later, and was modeled on the success of a similar program in Memphis, Tenn., which resulted in 80 percent fewer calls for barricaded suspects as well as fewer injuries to police officers.

Specially trained CIT officers respond when a mentally ill person is in crisis. The idea is to de-escalate the situation before force or an arrest becomes necessary. Officers are taught how to talk to someone who is mentally ill. They learn to turn off blaring police radios, lower their voices, be patient and treat their subjects with respect.

The beauty of both programs is that they cost nothing. No extra personnel have been hired. About 40 regular police officers volunteered to be trained by experts in various mental health fields, all of whom perform the work pro bono.

It's an extraordinary example of intra-community cooperation that should be replicated as often and in as many South Florida cities as possible. So far Wilton Manors is the only other Broward city with a CIT, although the Broward Sheriff's Office is forming one.

To spend a few hours on homeless outreach patrol with Russell is to learn what compassion, energy, patience and commitment can accomplish. He is clearly a man on a mission.

"Society is judged by how well it treats its elderly, its mentally ill and its poor," he says. But as he has previously pointed out, society also benefits from treating those groups well.

"You keep arresting the same guys for open containers, trespassing, disorderly conduct," he said a few months after the Homeless Outreach Program began. "If you can solve that problem by getting them into a rehabilitation facility, you can get that person permanently off that street, you've done a huge service to the community."

After making his regular rounds to check on some of his homeless "clients," he swings by St. Andrew's Church at Andrews Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard, where several dozen homeless people are gathered for their regular Thursday night meat loaf dinner, which is reputed to be quite good.

A few friendly waves greet him as he pulls in. The respect and affection these destitute people feel for this highly unusual police officer become increasingly evident over the next hour or so, as a kind of triage process takes place.

Those who are seeking shelter for the night form a separate line, waiting to speak with Russell and his partner, who on this day is a stand-in for Richard Courtney, a formerly homeless man who volunteers to work with Russell in the Homeless Outreach Program.

One by one, they approach to have their situations reviewed for the purpose of placement. This is crucial, because estimates of the number of homeless in Broward County range from 5,000 to 10,000, and there are only about 500 beds available on any given night.

Names and other personal information, including whether they have a physical, mental health or substance abuse problem, are checked against a central database on a laptop computer. About 4,000 names are in the database, all of them homeless people. Russell estimates that about 30 percent of the homeless are mentally ill and about 68 percent are substance abusers.

The first order of business is to determine who is eligible for the prime option: one of the county's three Homeless Assistance Centers, which in addition to meals and shelter offer a 60-day program of educational classes, money management help and health care services. When people leave the HAC program, they are given financial assistance to help them secure housing. Those who have never been through the program before get first dibs.

But Russell and his partner can get them into the HAC for only one night on an emergency basis. Those who want to be admitted to the full program must call a special toll-free phone number, 1-877-524-BEDS.

For those who can't go to the HAC, there are other options, but precious few. There's the Salvation Army, which, in addition to its regular transitional shelter programs, takes homeless people in on an emergency basis for one night every six months. There's also a homeless center in Hollywood that takes Fort Lauderdale clients when beds are available.

For some, though, there is the deflating news that there is no bed for them this night. Their only remaining options are to find a friend to stay with or remain on the street for at least one more night. A shortage of affordable housing is among the reasons for the burgeoning homeless population.

Russell says insufficient funding is the main obstacle to helping more of the homeless.

"There are good programs available," he says. "Just not enough of them."

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
Comments
Loading
82°