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Baltimore Police no longer have officers assigned to homeless outreach, but advocates say those resources can be better utilized

Baltimore Police no longer have officers specifically assigned to homeless outreach, but the department continues to help individuals connect with services, city officials said.

Baltimore Police recently merged officers from the Homeless Outreach Team with its crisis response team, which is specially trained to respond to calls involving mental health events. But officers still can help connect home people with outreach workers, transport them to a shelter or arrange for a follow-up by outreach workers, said Jerrianne Anthony, director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services.

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“Any time an officer encounters a homeless neighbor they have our contact information,” she said.

During the winter, the city expands its shelter capacity, providing more overflow beds whenever the temperatures dip below freezing, Anthony said. Twenty-eight outreach workers across three teams scour the city to encourage the homeless to come indoors.

“Anytime there is a Code Blue, we dispatch all of our outreach teams” to try to convince people to come inside, Anthony said.

For those who choose to not sleep in a shelter, outreach workers try to make sure they have access to blankets or that someone checks on them in the morning to make sure they are all right, she said. Outreach teams are on standby at local hospitals to make sure recently released individuals can be taken to a shelter.

Police spokesman Matt Jablow said the consolidation of the police outreach team was completed to “add capacity and get more officers, and highly trained offers, to work with homeless."

The previous homeless outreach team consisted of three sworn members but had been operating with just one in the past year, Jablow said. The crisis response team is headed by a sergeant and has three additional officers.

More than 200 city officers have undergone crisis intervention training that emphasizes tactics such as deescalation, but also gives them skills needed to better interact with the homeless.

“If we feel we need to add more, we will look into that,” Jablow said.

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The consolidation was recommended in a recent staffing plan drafted for the police department by a consultant.

The plan said the officers in the police outreach team worked in the “downtown area and seek to assist the homeless population with an understanding of the laws and safety net services for extreme weather conditions.” It recommended “decentralizing work of the team to the most affected districts.”

Several homeless advocates acknowledged the police department’s good intentions with the team but said the resources are better used elsewhere.

“I think that the HOT team was a really good idea," said Dale Meyer, president of the nonprofit People Encouraging People.

The officers assigned to the outreach team were well-meaning, she said, but the unit lacked enough officers to truly be effective. They were used to respond to businesses around the Inner Harbor, but not much else, she said.

But Meyer said she’s been pleased overall with how officers respond to the homeless, who often suffer from mental health issues.

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“The police department has done a wonderful job with that training. The approach is so different now,” she said. “How they approach folks has been much more along the lines of deescalation.”

Christina Flowers, founder of the Real Care Providers Network, which helps house individuals, said she felt the use of police officers for outreach discouraged homeless people from seeking help.

“Homeless people were more intimidated by the police," she said. “How could the HOT team do anything different than the trained outreach workers. It was a waste of money."

Tony Simmons, who was previously homeless and now serves as an advocate, said he would like to see broader training for all officers to make sure they have positive interactions with homeless people.

“There are a certain set of people you will never get off the street," he said.

On Sunday, the city’s Office of Homeless Services is expected to lead an annual point-in-time count in which volunteers walk city streets to try to count the homeless population. Anthony said the city is looking for volunteers who should meet at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Our Daily Bread employment center at 725 Fallsway in downtown.

For those concerned about homeless individuals, Anthony said, they can email homelessoutreach@baltimorecity.gov and an outreach worker will check on them.

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