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Salt Lake City cops help connect panhandlers to services (SL Trib)

Monday, 19 November 2012 17:22

Outreach • Homeless advocates urge public to help by feeding red meters downtown.

By cathy mckitrick for The Salt Lake Tribune

As holiday shoppers head downtown for the annual opening of their wallets, they might be tempted to toss panhandlers some spare change.

But longtime homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson is urging them to reconsider and "give a hand up instead of a handout."

About 18 months ago, Salt Lake City's Homeless Outreach Service Team (HOST) program began providing a simple way to do that, installing 13 red meters throughout the central business district.

"When this was first unveiled, I hugged the meter," Atkinson said. "What a blessing to make it easy to give."

Whether it's quarters fed into the meters or dollars donated to the Pamela Atkinson Foundation at any Zions Bank branch, over time the collective cash has added up to $16,562.08, Atkinson said. Those funds will soon be divided among the various service providers that are helping to turn people's lives around.

The HOST motto, "turn spare change into real change," hints at the social service support network beyond the meters.

"We can give people on the streets the socks, the underwear, the blankets," Atkinson said. "But they need more. That more is other resources that all these providers give."

In their HOST roles, Salt Lake City police officers work to connect individuals in need with appropriate resources, whether it be food, shelter, medical or mental health treatment and programs to overcome addictions.

"We're kind of the second responders," said Kathy Bray, president of Volunteers of America, Utah. "The police are doing the initial interactions with people who are panhandling, and we're often called because we have the homeless outreach program."

The beauty of that program lies in its mobility, she said.

"Because we're mobile, we can go to wherever the person is and talk about what they need," said Bray.

Through HOST, city cops began interacting with panhandlers, "trying to get a little bit of their story," Bray said. She said she applauds the city for placing priority on interventions and community solutions rather than punishment.

According to Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, HOST officers have reached out to more than 600 individuals in the past year, and 300 were referred to area services.

HOST was never intended to move homeless people out of downtown, Burbank said. Rather, it was meant to "encounter individuals in need of a little extra help."

"Our officers, as opposed to saying 'you need to leave or you go to jail tonight,' now have conversations," Burbank said, with the talk centering on individual needs and how to get them met in quick fashion.

"We call those providers," Burbank said, "and they come and assist us on the street."

For Burbank, progress from the program has been sweet.

"I have seen firsthand individuals that I dealt with twice a week for years that are now no longer on the street," Burbank said, "and are no longer having these problems because they have housing."

Steven Roe, a formerly homeless man who now operates a Midvale paralegal business, is actively engaged with HOST through his role with the Homeless Court held on alternate Fridays at the Weigand Homeless Day Center.

Salt Lake City police officers often refer transients there who have been ticketed for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses.

"All it took for me was one little inkling of hope from an authority figure such as a cop," Roe said. "When people see efforts from someone they have grown to despise and hate, it makes them think that maybe it's worth it to push forward."