Police boosting outreach following homeless vet video
Police boosting outreach following homeless vet video
Updated at 8:32 a.m. Thursday, August 14
Alameda’s top cop says the police department will do more to help homeless people following the release of a video that showed local police ticketing a homeless veteran and suggesting he leave Alameda for Oakland.
Posted in late July, the roughly 14-minute video shows Alameda police ticketing 34-year-old Aaron Colyer on a charge he was illegally living in his vehicle. Police told Colyer he couldn’t sleep in his van, which was parked in a lot near the Main Street ferry terminal, and that he would have to move on.
On the video, he can be seen asking the Alameda police ticketing him where they expect him to sleep.
“You can go to Oakland if you want to,” an officer replies. “Or you can get a hotel room here.”
Police Chief Paul Rolleri said the officers who ticketed Colyer should have let him know what services are available to him, instead of simply telling him to move along.
“I don’t have a problem with the officer taking an enforcement action. The mistake we made was to not offer a service,” Rolleri said. “It was a mistake, and we’ll fix it.”
Rolleri said the department has issued resource cards and a pamphlet spelling out what services are available to people who are homeless, mentally ill or in need of other social services. He said a lot of the department’s officers have the cards to hand out, but now he’s going to make sure every officer does.
“This was a training issue. A lot of officers would have given the service,” Rolleri said. “What I would like to see is, any time we contact somebody who is homeless, enforcement is fine if appropriate. But we should refer them (to services).”
Colyer, who responded Saturday to a message a reporter left through a GoFundMe campaign seeking $25,000 for legal fees, gas, food, shelter and to turn his van into a mobile disaster relief and homeless outreach vehicle, questioned the officers' decision to ticket him and said he plans to fight the citation in court. He said laws prohibiting people from camping in public and sleeping in their car are inhumane and unconstitutional and that they violate several recent court decisions.
"There should be a place where people can park safely if they are homeless or traveling," Colyer wrote in comments on this story. He said he had been sleeping in his car here for about 30 days while he struggled to find housing, and that he didn't feel safe sleeping in Oakland.
Rolleri said the department is part of Alameda County’s crisis intervention training program, which teaches law enforcement officials how to handle mental illness and other social issues they encounter on the job. Officers and mental health officials meet regularly to discuss cases and to seek out ways to help the people involved, Alameda Police Officer Alicea Ledbetter said.
“Police do act as front line social workers. They’re kind of that first contact a lot of times,” Ledbetter said.
The training and collaboration with police and mental health leaders in other cities appears to be helping people in need, Ledbetter said; anecdotally, the number of police contacts with people whose cases are managed by the team seem to be going down.
“We’re seeing results,” Ledbetter said.
A 2013 census found more than 4,000 homeless people living in Alameda County, about 12 percent of them identifying as veterans. The numbers were the same as they were in 2011 despite the success of programs to permanently house people, and census takers found more people living on the streets than before.
Alameda has a food bank and a shelter for battered women and children, but it lacks a temporary shelter to house homeless men. Permanent housing sources for homeless people include the Alameda Point Collaborative on Alameda Point, which provides housing, job training and other services; and Shinsei Gardens, an apartment complex with below-market rents focused on housing veterans.
A recent survey conducted by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that 43 percent of the 187 cities surveyed had laws that prohibited sleeping in vehicles, which were among a list of laws the report characterized as criminalizing homelessness.
Passed in 1973, the city rules that led to Colyer’s ticket make it illegal “to use or occupy, or to permit the use or occupancy of, any house car, camper, trailer coach, camp car or mobile home for human habitation or as a dwelling place, including but not limited to sleeping, eating, or resting uses as occupancies, singly or in a group, on any street, park, beach, parking lot, square, alley, public way or other public place within the city between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.”
Minutes from the City Council meeting where the rules were approved didn’t offer any details about the council’s intent in okaying them.
Rolleri said the department has issued three tickets citing the law over the past 14 months, including Colyer’s. He said the officers who cited Colyer found him while on routine patrol.
“We don’t have a lot of that. It’s not a regularly issued thing,” said Rolleri, who said the department doesn’t conduct “sweeps” to rid the Island of homeless people. “There’s no war on the homeless.”
Colyer, who said he'd been sleeping in his vehicle in the Alameda lot for about 30 days but has since found an apartment temporarily, said he disagrees.
"(T)he police say there is no war on the homeless but it is illegal to exist essentially," Colyer wrote. "If it is illegal to live in a car and you have no where else to live, what are you supposed to do die?"