The Coast News Group

Police HOT team efforts give city homeless a hand up

OCEANSIDE — Oceanside police have initiated a Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) to connect individuals with resources to help them get back on their feet and end the cycle of homelessness.

HOT team officers present assistance to individuals at transient camps and respond to police officer referrals and calls from homeless individuals. From there they work to connect those who will take help with the right assistance.

This means driving them to the DMV to obtain needed identification to register for services, and then to a local charity that will conduct a needs survey and match them with the best regional resources.

“They connect these people with nonprofits and places they can get some help,” Councilman Jerry Kern said. “Some (homeless individuals) are so disconnected they don’t know what services are available.”

Police Lt. Karen Laser, manager of the HOT team, said some individuals just need referrals to services; others need more assistance due to mental challenges they face, which may include lapses in taking needed medication.

In Oceanside the majority of homeless individuals are men ages 18 to 35. Factors such as military service and age determine qualifications for some assistance programs.

The HOT team takes the time to ensure each individual who accepts the help receives the assistance they need, even if follow up takes weeks.

“It is not a enforcement-based team,” Laser said. “Basically we’re offering assistance to homeless who would not know the first steps to get off the street. For those who are willing to make a change, that’s what this team is there for.”

Police efforts respect and accommodate those in need. Laser said the department is in the process of acquiring a van to transport individuals and their goods, sometimes piled into a shopping cart, to services.

Homelessness is not just an Oceanside problem. HOT team efforts are part of the extended 25 Cities Project. The original project aims to end veteran homelessness in 25 U.S. cities by the end of 2015, including San Diego.

Expanded efforts have included North County cities and nonprofit groups in a collaborative effort to end veteran and chronic homelessness under the umbrella of Alliance for Regional Solutions.

The Oceanside Police Department is the only regional law enforcement partner involved in the efforts, other than San Diego Police.

Laser said it is important to understand the difference between police services to assist homeless individuals, and police enforcement efforts to address vagrants who cause disruptions. The two efforts are very distinct.

Police have made efforts to educate downtown merchants on accurate terms to describe individuals when they call in, so the correct help can be given.

Tracey Bohlen, city economic development manager, said there has been a spike in vagrant panhandlers in the downtown area in the past several months, that some have mislabeled as homeless. Bohlen said merchants have complained about aggressive individuals who loiter, refuse to move on and are confrontational. Bohlen added police have adopted a no-tolerance policy and are ticketing violators.

Additionally police have reached out to charity groups to educate them on regional efforts to help homeless and enforcement efforts to deal with vagrants. This ensures services help the homeless improve their lives and don’t perpetuate vagrants gathering and causing residents and tourists to feel uncomfortable.