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Off Central: A look at what it takes to police the homeless

Officer Brian Ornelas speaking with the homeless (Corbin Carson/KTAR News)
LISTEN: What it takes to police the homeless

TEMPE — Getting people to move it along is not as easy as it sounds.

In April, the Tempe Police Department added a Park Police unit to engage with the homeless that have been congregating in the city’s more than 50 parks.

“You know you’re out there and you see people at their lowest, almost every day,” said officer Brian Ornelas, currently the only officer assigned to the unit. “But at the same time it’s challenging, and it does feel good when you can get a handful folks housed.”

Not everyone’s getting housed, but when those that do send pictures back showing their new homes, it really feels good, said Ornelas, a patrol cop for 13 years before this assignment.

One of the first areas Ornelas focused on was Papago Park in Tempe. There were roughly 80 people living in 40-50 tents there around May or June of this year, Ornelas said.

“Months of getting to know who was in there, [and] taking away that anonymity,” he said. “What ended up happening when we started moving folks out, they just got displaced.”

It’s much more complicated when people have nowhere else to go.

“You try to house as many people as you can, but the resources, [are] just not there to house 80 people like that,” Ornelas said.

The process is a lot more involved than just the typical, ‘Alright now, move it on along,’ Ornelas said.

“It’s just listening to them a little bit longer, giving them that extra 5-10 minutes to hear them out,” he said. “And then quickly being able to build that rapport and that trust, to get them to the services they need.”

There’s obviously a need for shelter, Ornelas said, but at the same time, many are dealing with drugs, and/or suffering from mental and physical health issues.

“Going out there and identifying what those issues are, and then bringing folks in to try and help them with those issues to help them get on that road to housing was key for us,” Ornelas said.

Sometimes Ornelas makes his rounds with people from local organizations like Community Bridges or Circle the City. They offer some of the much-needed services, just in case the homeless person is ready right then.

“We don’t come in there and say ‘hey, you need to be out of here by tomorrow,’” he said. “That’s not how you deal with things like that.

“I come in there and I get to know these folks. I offer them any kind of services I can bring to them, and I give them weeks.”

People are given a date, and Ornelas constantly checks back with them as the date approaches for reminders.

“And I tell you, when that date does come, they’re gone, they’ve already moved out,” he said. “That feels good when that happens, and I don’t have to be the bad guy that day.”

Homelessness is not a crime, Ornelas said, but there are laws that everyone, including homeless people, have to follow.

Urban camping is one of them.

“The one thing that I tell folks to remember is, it could happen to you,” Ornelas said.

“You never know when we could lose it mentally, from some disease or just something happens, the next day you’re just not thinking straight.”

Or you could lose everything from a sickness in the family or something worse and you could be homeless or very close to it.

“You got to remember, they’re human beings and you talk to them like a human being,” Ornelas said. “I got to tell you, there’s a couple of homeless folks I’ve got to know out there that have died.

“And that affected me, a lot more than I thought it would because I got to know them.”

Ornelas credits his father for the passion he has for this work. He never let him forget that there are some people that aren’t as lucky as he was raised.

“I feel like I’m doing some good … at times, when I get people housed,” he said.

“I’ve done a couple other assignments but I got to tell you this is the hardest one, but at the same time the most gratifying.”

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