Last week, the New Orleans Police Department announced a new homeless policy that immediately positioned the NOPD as a national leader on this issue. "This puts the New Orleans Police Department at the head of the class," says Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the person who oversees the homeless-related activities of 18 cabinet-level federal agencies.
The new policy -- which aims to help homeless people rather than arrest them -- is a collaborative effort between Unity for the Homeless and Eighth District NOPD Capt. Louis Dabdoub, whose officers deal with many of the city's homeless as they patrol the French Quarter and the Central Business District. The NOPD will apply the new policy to all homeless people, with a special emphasis on the "chronically homeless" -- unaccompanied individuals, most of them men, who have mental or physical disabilities and who have been homeless for more than a year. Unity's counts show that about 1,400 chronically homeless people currently live in New Orleans. The ultimate goal is to move many chronically homeless people off the streets and into places of their own.
"It's an innovative approach that enlists the police as partners in ending homelessness," says Unity executive director Martha Kegel. "In the old system, some officers thought they were helping homeless people by putting a roof over their heads for the night." In truth, jail time can be a major setback. Homeless people emerge from Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) worse for the experience, often having spent time without anti-psychotic medication. They also might have lost jobs, food stamps and even their SSI (Social Security Income) benefits, which can take a year to get back. "The punitive approach just doesn't work," Mangano says. "You hide the problem for 30, 60, or 90 days of temporary incarceration and then they're back on the street, often worse off."
Since the French Quarter cleanup began in the summer of 2002, police have arrested scores of homeless people for charges such as public drunkenness or obstructing a public passage. A typical Municipal Court sentence for such a charge can range from 10 to 90 days, for which Orleans Parish Prison would bill the City of New Orleans $278 to $2,438, respectively.
Under the new NOPD policy, when officers encounter a homeless person, they can -- instead of arresting them -- call for a marked NOPD "mobile assistance unit" purchased by the New Orleans Police Foundation, thanks to a $30,000 grant from Baptist Community Ministries. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu also secured a $249,000 Economic Development Initiative grant so Unity could launch the program, hire two caseworkers, and improve and expand the New Orleans Mission. Loyola University criminologist Dee Wood Harper will lead a van staffed with social-work students and volunteers, who will help homeless people with their immediate concerns and then guide them to a shelter, hospital, or substance abuse program.
On Jackson Square last week, squad cars were still pulling through early in the morning and arresting people who had nodded off to sleep on the metal benches. A few of the Square's core group of homeless people had read about the new policy and were heartened. But they were concerned that police officers might now hand out more citations or force them to go to a shelter. Mangano says that the approach can't be forcible but rather must "woo them to come in." Dabdoub agrees, saying his first priority is earning trust on both sides. He predicts that in a year officers, residents and the homeless will see marked changes.
The plan will require not only officer training but also a complete change in mindset. Dabdoub has successfully overseen such a task before, when his former station, the Second District, implemented a model program for domestic violence response. We hope the homeless program will be equally successful. However, one aspect -- a plan to build a new residential homeless shelter within the next three years -- should be reconsidered. Research has shown overwhelmingly that permanent "supportive housing" -- apartments with regular visits by clinically trained mental-health teams -- is more cost-effective than temporary shelters. In other cities, such efforts have seen a 90 percent retention rate. The Louisiana Public Health Institute already has the support teams in place, through a private grant, and can handle about 50 clients at a time. But they have no housing.
There is no doubt that the decreased arrests will considerably lighten the city's jail-related costs. The city should now, with the guidance of Unity and the help of the philanthropic community, make a solid investment in housing. Similar investments in Philadelphia cut the street-homeless population by more than 75 percent in five years. Taking these people off the streets is the right thing to do for our tourism industry and for French Quarter and CBD residents. Above all, it's the right thing to do for the chronically homeless people of New Orleans.