Police boosting outreach following homeless vet video

Police boosting outreach following homeless vet video

Michele Ellson
Alameda police

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?"


Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Thu, Aug 7, 2014

I know of at least two homeless veterans who hang out near Webster Street. In the past, both have received citations for public intoxication. They need more help than a card with information; they need continuing help from a professional social worker. I have brought this matter to the attention of City officials.

The homeless we see on the street may just be the tip of the iceberg. Some keep themselves well hidden. Others find temporary shelter from time to time with friends or family. In some cases, it has been a long road of decline that is not easily or quickly remedied.

The police are doing the best that they can with the resources that they have. The problems that homeless veterans and other homeless men and women face cannot be solved by the police. The community needs the resources to address the physical and mental health needs of those who are homeless. We need supportive transitional housing for men as well as women in our community.

The homeless in our community are our responsibility. We cannot expect other communities to take on our responsibilities.

Submitted by Doug Biggs (not verified) on Thu, Aug 7, 2014

Hindsight is always 20/20 and there have been many situations I've been in where after the fact I've said to myself "ohh I wish I had said this" Speaking from the perspective of someone with lots of experience working with the homeless, and also as someone responsible for assessing social service needs in Alameda through my role on SSHRB, I think both parties in this incident did a commendable job of controlling themselves and their actions, and closing out an interaction that made both parties uncomfortable. I think the officer showed considerable restraint after being confronted by someone that clearly had a larger agenda to pursue. Yes in an ideal world it would have been nice to hear the officer say "you can go to Oakland where there is a shelter located at...." but again hindsight is always 20/20.

Interestingly enough, as evidenced by the gentleman's own facebook page, he was already strongly engaged with services locally, and had already been accepted into housing. One could think that the interaction with the police was the final incentive he needed to make that switch from "roughing it" to living in suitable housing.

Regarding the larger issue of homelessness in Alameda, SSHRB recently held a special meeting that brought together providers, the police and other agencies to discuss what is being done and what could be done. As a result of that meeting there are plans for doing an on the ground count later in the fall to get a better determination on the numbers. At the meeting Office Ledbetter talked about how the police work with service provider currently. I and other Board Members were extremely impressed with the skills and commitment she personally brought to the effort. Several of the service providers at the meeting also offered additional resources to the police to assist in making services available to those that need them.

Lastly, despite (or maybe because of) the poor record of the VA, they have established an impressive program for Homeless Vets that is being implemented locally by a lot of high quality organizations, including Building Futures for Women and Children, Abode Housing, and Operation Dignity among others. Any homeless vet, anywhere can call 877-4AID-VET (424-3838) any hour day or night and get connected to services.

Submitted by luczai (not verified) on Thu, Aug 7, 2014

"To protect and to serve" means everybody, even the homeless and mentally ill, if not especially them. Officers should worry less about the letter of the law and a little more about the Golden Rule.

Submitted by Lester (not verified) on Thu, Aug 7, 2014

Michelle, do you have a spare bed or a some floor space? Why do you frequently try to instigate problems? John Burris is an opportunist who aspires to be Al Sharpton.

Submitted by William Collins (not verified) on Sat, Aug 9, 2014

I do not know exactly what happened here, and I skimmed the article. However, I do believe that the police issuing of tickets in Alameda, is higher than any other town I have ever lived in. I received 4 tickets within 3 years, after just moving here. I got my first speeding ticket here, in 23 years. I "rarely" speed. And the ticket was issued in the tube, not even in "Alameda proper." I was not going faster than speed of traffic.

The worst one was getting a "ticket" while parked at the Jack in the Box restaurant on Park street. I was using a restaurant right there on Encinal. While, technically, I was not a "Jack" customer, I thought it odd that every single car near me had also gotten a ticket, yes even customers, at the Jack restaurant.

What this meant to me, was the Alameda Police officer had extended themselves, and not followed any type of procedure, to consider illegally parked cars. How many of those cars just paid, instead of taking a day off work?

Something needs to be reeled in. I understand driving below 30 within our island. I don't understand punishing customers who are giving money back to our family owned business establishments (and Jack customers too).

Since my last ticket, about 5 years ago, I have never received another car ticket in or outside of Alameda. Good drivers are "over punished" inside of Alameda. My $.02.

Submitted by Aaron Colyer (not verified) on Wed, Aug 13, 2014

I am planning on fighting this in court, this should not happen to anyone, if you can't afford a place to live, where else are you supposed live if you have a vehicle? I was denied housing at Alameda Point because of my Service Dog Captain and I don't feel safe sleeping in Oakland. I have an apartment now, temporarily, am doing therapy and counseling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Veterans Administration refuses to help me. I have been waiting almost a year for a hearing, 8 months of that year I was homeless. There should be a place where people can park safely if they are homeless or traveling. I mean what if someone drives for 12 hours and needs to pull over and sleep? People don't get tickets for eating at the park on their lunch break? I just don't understand, the police say there is no war on the homeless but it is illegal to exist essentially. If it is illegal to live in a car and you have no where else to live, what are you supposed to do die? Is this why 23 veterans commit suicide everyday? These are important questions that I hope can be answered and addressed because this law is unconstitutional, inhumane, and a violation of human rights and civil rights. Here is a link to the video if you want to see it for yourself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1w3lZV91ak

Submitted by Aaron Colyer (not verified) on Wed, Aug 13, 2014

In responste to the comment by Doug Briggs, I did not already have housing, I was looking for housing, I was denied housing twice because of my service dog Captain, even though that is illegal. I do have housing now temporarily and I am getting a lot of help thanks to people sharing this story and for caring enough to make a difference instead of criticizing and blaming. For your information I came here to find my two year old son and could not afford to live here so I have basically been homeless most of the time I have been here. I bought the van because at least it was a step up from living on the streets and it was safer and cleaner. I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder so it is very difficult for me to even stay in a shelter so the van was great for many reasons. To attempt to blame me in any way for sleeping in a vehicle is truly sad, where is your empathy and compassion, what is wring with sleeping in a vehicle if you are homeless and there is no shelter? I don't have any agenda other than trying to live in peace if at all possible and trying to be the dad for my son that I never had. I'm not going to pay this ticket even if that means going to jail.