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Putting a face on the homeless

Understanding the path that led someone to homelessness can be key to connecting that person with the resources that work for them

Do we really know who the homeless are, or are they just faceless sources of calls?

“They’re invisible,” my son Anthony said while we were having lunch at a local sandwich shop. “Who’s invisible?” I asked. “The homeless. To most people they’re invisible. They’re there but they don’t really see them.”

I thought I was familiar with the homeless in our city, but my son’s statement got me to thinking: Do we really know who they are, or are they just faceless sources of calls?

Community liaison

During my 25 years as a member of the Lodi Police Department (LPD) in California’s Central Valley, I worked with the homeless. I’d retired as a captain in 2014 and returned three years later at the behest of Chief Tod Patterson to assist with the new community liaison officer program, which would assign one officer full time to deal with the homeless in our city. Lodi PD has 73 officers and dayshift usually consists of only 4-5 officers. The community liaison officer handles all homeless-related calls thus allowing the dayshift officers to be more proactive.

The current community liaison officer, Kenneth Rock, spends 40 hours a week interacting with local social services agencies in an effort to get people off of the street. The program has been a success with Officer Rock and his three predecessors assisting over 200 people into rehabilitation and therapy programs or getting them back home with their families.

My partner Jimmy Pendergast is another LPD retiree and we both work as support services officers. Jimmy serves as an invaluable link between our department and Behavioral Health Services in San Joaquin County. That connection alone has helped us take 25 people off of the street in nine months. We also assist Officer Rock in any way we can including cleaning up homeless camps, attending meetings and interacting with code enforcement. We drive around the city checking the areas where the homeless congregate and make contact with them to see if we can connect them with the services they need. It’s no secret that the majority of homeless individuals suffer from some form of substance abuse or mental health issue.

Meet Dave

Many of the homeless in Lodi live in campers or RVs in the industrial area east of Highway 99. We were driving through the area in early April when we noticed an older gentleman sitting alone in the cab of a beat-up, late 1960s blue GMC pickup truck. He looked up from his magazine and gave us a little wave. We waved back and continued on our way.

A few months later we decided to stop and see how the old guy was doing. After an exchange of pleasantries, he told us his name was Dave. His thick head of hair was the color and consistency of a Brillo pad and he had a scraggly beard to match. The hair that encircled his mouth was dark orange indicating he was a heavy smoker. He looked like a guy who was more comfortable panning for gold than residing in an old truck on the side of the road.

He said he’d been living in Lodi for about six months. Jimmy asked him if he had any friends or relatives in the area. He smiled through tobacco-stained teeth and pointed over at a small mound of gray fur on the front seat. “That’s Biscuit” he beamed. The little mutt slumbering next to him resembled a worn-out version of Toto from the “Wizard of Oz.” Biscuit lifted his head slowly and eyeballed us.

It’s true what they say about some people looking like their dog and vice-versa. Biscuit had the same coarse gray hair, scruffy face and laid-back disposition as his owner. “He’s a stray,” Dave declared. “He walked up to me one day. He found me, not the other way around.”

Jimmy asked him how he was doing and he replied, “Can’t complain.” We knew there were other people in the area who couldn’t say the same thing so we headed off down the road.

“It’s like we’re in the zoo.”

Another month went by and we came across him in the lot at Salas Park. It was a few days after my lunch with my son, Anthony, and I thought it was a good opportunity to really “see” who Dave was.

He sat in his truck with the front door open as Biscuit tiptoed through the lush green grass nearby. Dave was dressed in a black long sleeve collared shirt, black jeans and tan hiking shoes. A simple pair of reading glasses with black frames sat perched on his nose. He was a small, thin man with nicotine stains on his right index and middle fingers and a hint of Texas drawl in his voice. His words were punctuated occasionally by a dry smoker’s cough. He seemed amused that someone outside of the homeless community wanted to have a conversation with him.

I asked him how he’d ended up homeless in Lodi. He took a long drag off of his Pall Mall cigarette, coughed and stared off into the park. A few seconds passed then he looked over at me and said, “I’m turning 74 (years old) in a few weeks. I used to be a truck driver.” He’d lived in the San Bernardino area for about 20 years when out of the blue in July 2016 a friend called him with an attractive proposition. He asked Dave if he would be interested in being the caretaker of a 600-acre ranch just outside of Walnut Grove, a small town in rural Sacramento County. Dave said yes and quickly packed up to head north. “I came up for the fishing,’” he cackled. He lived on the property in a 38’ trailer and would toss his line in the Sacramento River across the road from the ranch any chance he could.

That all changed a year later. He fell from a ladder while fixing a barn door and ended up with a broken femur. While he was in the hospital the owner of the ranch left Dave’s belongings and truck in the hospital parking lot and told him he was no longer welcome on the ranch. Dave was suddenly homeless.

He lived on country roads for a while and eventually made his way to Lodi because he heard it was safer for the homeless than other cities in the area. He receives about $900 a month from Social Security but after paying his bills, including over $300 for cigarettes, he’s left with only about $200 for rent. A one-bedroom apartment in the area runs about $850 a month. He sighed, “I’m basically broke after I pay my bills. There’s nothing left over.”

I noticed several people drive by and stare at him while I was talking with him. He said, “Yeah, it’s like we’re in the zoo. They drive by then complain about us on Facebook. Some people will come by and give me five or ten dollars. Some will talk religion with me. Sometimes they’ll come by and take pictures of us.” His pleasant face grew hard. “It makes you feel this big.” His right index finger was an inch from his right thumb.

He said he usually sleeps in the Walmart lot because it’s patrolled by security. He eats at local fast-food restaurants and on occasion, will pay $12 for a shower at the Flag City truck stop. His interactions with Lodi PD have been positive over the years. He said, “They’ve been good to me. They’ve tried to help me out, like you guys.”

I asked him what he’d tell society if he had the chance. He grinned and said, “Give me a place to park my truck and put up my tent. I’d stay in someone’s backyard if they let me.” He paused then said, “I’d tell them ‘Don’t put us down.’ I know some of them [homeless] do drugs and steal. But not all of us. We need help.”

Every person living on the street has a story

I pondered what he’d said for the next few days. Jimmy and I met with Officer Rock to see if we could come up with a way to get Diamond Dave, as Jimmy had taken to calling him, off the street. Dave told us early on that he did not want to live in a shelter because he didn’t like the atmosphere there. Obviously, he couldn’t afford an apartment so we met with the managers of several local hotels. The cost for most rooms was about $500 a month so that was out. Besides none of the hotels would allow Biscuit to stay with him.

Officer Rock contacted Dave’s son Gabe in Tennessee. Gabe told us he had “a room with his (Dave’s) name on it” if we could get Dave out east. He’d been trying to get his father back home for 20 years but it never worked out. We met with Dave and initially, he seemed interested in moving in with his son. He balked after realizing his old truck probably wouldn’t make it across the country. We offered to buy him a bus or plane ticket but he said he didn’t want to leave the truck behind because it held sentimental value for him.

Out of the blue, a Lodi businessman offered to have Dave’s truck shipped to Tennessee for free. Dave thought about it but declined the offer. We were frustrated because the mission of the community liaison officer program is to use our resources to get people like Dave off the street and into suitable living accommodations. In Dave’s case, we didn’t have to jump over the hurdles of substance abuse or mental illness to find him a place to live. We liked him but we’d done what we could.

We came across Dave at the park in early October. He informed us that he had lung cancer and that sadly, Biscuit had gone missing. Jimmy asked him as we departed, “You doin’ ok?” Dave replied, “Can’t complain.”

Broadening our understanding

I thought about what I’d learned from my interaction with Dave. I’d figured out that in regard to the homeless, there’s a difference between understanding and condoning. Getting to know Dave on a personal level and doing our best to help him could be construed by some critics as condoning his situation. Yes, enforcement has a place in dealing with the homeless but ultimately, understanding Dave’s plight opened our eyes and reminded us there is a story behind every person living on the street.

Fast forward to early November. We’d resigned ourselves to the fact that Dave would spend the winter living on the street while he dealt with his cancer. Then out of the blue, a representative from a local homeless housing program, Project Room Key, contacted Jimmy. They had a room available for Dave permanently if he wanted it. Within a few weeks, Dave was residing in a refurbished hotel in south Stockton. He now has a warm, clean place to call his own while he undergoes cancer treatment. He’s happy now and if you could ask him how he’s doing, he’d reply, “Can’t complain.”

Dave’s story had a happy ending but shows how difficult it can be for law enforcement to get someone off the street. It took almost eight months but due to the efforts of the Lodi Police Department community liaison team and Project Room Key, Dave has a roof over his head for the first time in over four years. Along the way, we came to understand what people like Dave face each day on the street. My son Anthony was right. Most of the homeless in Lodi were invisible. But now after getting to know “Diamond Dave” we can “see” them better and that will aid us in coming up with positive long-term solutions for the homeless in our city.

NEXT: The top 10 reasons to start a police homeless outreach team (and how)

Chris Piombo worked for the Lodi (California) Police Department for 25 years retiring as a captain. He was a member of the department’s SWAT team for 20 years including nine years as the team commander. He is an instructor at the San Joaquin Delta College Peace Officer Academy, varsity baseball coach and marathon runner.