On a recent morning in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles Police Officer Josh Fillinger questioned a shirtless, barefoot young homeless man named Gregory Dunning.
“Are you on probation or parole, sir?” Fillinger asked. Dunning shook his head no. “Good.”
Dunning admitted to being heroin addict, out in the woods near the 405 Freeway to get high. Then the conversation took a surprising turn as Fillinger gently urged Dunning to consider rehab or a shelter. “If you don’t feel comfortable with police that’s fine,” the officer said. “We have other people you can talk to, but we really just want to get you in the right direction.”
It was surprising because the LAPD isn’t generally known for a warm, fuzzy approach to the homeless. But Officer Fillinger belongs to a new task force called HOPE, which stands for Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement. It partners cops with professional homeless outreach, sanitation and mental health workers. Together, they fan out across the city, talk to homeless people, build relationships and try to connect the homeless to services.
HOPE began in May with 10 officers in the Valley. It expanded in August with two more teams covering east, west and central LA, and the fourth and final team starts in South LA in October. LAPD Cmdr. Todd Chamberlain, who oversees HOPE, says it speaks to the urgency of LA’s homeless crisis.
“The homeless population is now in every command, every division within the City of Los Angeles,” he said. Yet until now, there was no cohesive approach to policing that population. “We wanted to come up with some centralized form that would standardize and give best practices to dealing with an incredibly complex problem, and that’s where the HOPE teams came from.”
The idea for HOPE grew out of a directive from LA Mayor Eric Garcetti earlier this year. In April, he demanded that every city department, from airports to fire to libraries, come up with a plan to address homelessness.
“I wanted everybody to own this issue,” Garcetti told KCRW.
For police, he wanted to see less emphasis on enforcement and more focus on helping people. “I think in the past we had this idea that the homeless were victims or perpetrating crime,” Garcetti said, “and that was basically the identity and the interaction that police officers had with them.”
Now, “We’ve changed the whole culture.”
Over the summer, the police department even officially adopted a policy of treating the homeless with “compassion and empathy.”
Still, critics question how much difference a shift in policing can make.
Carol Sobel, a longtime civil rights lawyer who’s sued the city numerous times over how it treats homeless people, argues that cops can only do so much in a city that still lacks shelters and affordable housing.
“I think it’s really good that they have a different approach,” she said, “but I think it remains a resource question… I don’t think the services are really there.”
City officials do have other, long-term plans — like measure HHH, a bond on the November ballot that would fund 10,000 units of homeless housing over the next decade.
In the meantime, the LAPD will do what it can. The HOPE team covering the Valley has housed 43 people since May. Chamberlain said the two teams that started last month are housing similar numbers. At this rate, HOPE would house about 400 people a year, in a city with about 25,000 homeless.
To be sure, it can sometimes take weeks or months to build enough trust for someone to accept help.
Back in the woods near the 405, Fillinger and the other HOPE officers ran into one of these tough cases: 39-year-old Leela Ramirez. She is addicted to meth and lives in a tent with her boyfriend. She said she’s not ready to get drug treatment, but the HOPE TEAM arranged for her to get a ride to apply for general relief benefits later that day with workers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
“They’re not our friends,” Ramirez said when asked what she thinks of police in general. So what makes these cops different? Why is she willing to accept help from them? “I don’t know,” she said. “They care.”