Community First

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

The Hartford Police Department’s efforts to reach out to the homeless are not only compassionate and smart, but also a model for how to put “community” first in community policing.

Beginning in the fall, Hartford police teamed up with social workers from the Upper Valley Haven, a nonprofit that operates homeless shelters in White River Junction, to visit a handful of homeless encampments around town. As staff writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling reported last week, by the time the bitter cold descended in December, they had succeeded in connecting a fair number of those living in tents with needed services and a warm, safe place to stay.

Given how cold it has been, you might think that it wouldn’t take much convincing to persuade a homeless person to relocate in such circumstances. But in some cases, said Sara Kobylenski, the Haven’s executive director, you would be wrong. “They tend to be very self-sufficient,” she told Hongoltz-Hetling. “They tend to be people who are shy of social interaction. They’re often people with long, hard life stories. They would rather rely on themselves than anybody else.”

As so often in police work, success depends on building and maintaining relationships. When a police officer shows up unannounced at a door, or tent flap, residents are far more likely to respond positively if they already know and trust that officer. So when two Haven staffers and a police officer began periodically visiting homeless encampments back in October, they carried backpacks of essential supplies to distribute. “Our approach was that it wasn’t to kick anyone out of where they were staying, but to be able to make sure people were aware of the resources in the community,” said Renee Weeks, the Haven’s director of clinical services. It makes sense that such a low-key approach to offering assistance would go a long way toward reassuring someone who is wary of social interaction.

It also seems probable that both Haven staffers and Hartford officers will benefit from their partnership, by gaining a better understanding of the perspectives and priorities of the other agency and how they go about their jobs. It’s often said that police officers these days have become social workers by default; if so, what better grounding for that role than working alongside someone who has the requisite skills and can provide insight? And as Weeks pointed out, police “have the training to handle certain situations” that Haven staffers might not.

Much of the credit for this initiative goes to Police Chief Phil Kasten. His comments to Hongoltz-Hetling reflect a nuanced appreciation of the difficulties faced by the homeless population. He pointed out that while mental illness, addiction and generational poverty all tend to play a role in homelessness, that’s not always the case. “It might be a need of transportation, or identification, or building a residency history and those kinds of things. They may need legal aid,” he noted.

Kobylenski, of the Haven, says the partnership has been so successful that other towns and social service agencies have taken note; she says that the Haven and the Hartford Police Department stand ready to share their experience with other communities that have homeless populations. We hope that the offer will be accepted.

It also occurs to us that the partnership model might be expanded to aid people with other sorts of issues, such as mental illness or drug addiction. Police officers routinely come into contact with people suffering from those illnesses and adding to their response the hands-on expertise of specialists in those areas can only help in building a stronger community.