BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Buffalo’s police chief who oversees the business district accompanied outreach workers for the homeless Thursday afternoon. The goal is to create a special patrol unit that would serve the needs of the city’s chronically homeless.
These are people who have been living in the outdoors for a year or more and suffer from various disabilities, including mental illness, substance abuse, and physical ailments.
After the state put metal bars under bridges where many of Buffalo’s chronically homeless live, a grassroots move got underway to more involve the city’s police more deeply in the lives of people on the street.
As Chief Patterson approached a man affectionately called “Smiley” by his friends on Elmwood Avenue, the man’s left foot which had been badly deformed by frostbite, was being treated by an outreach nurse.
Karl Naegely, “Smiley’s” real name, was recently placed in a housing unit but still collects bottles and cans to make a few dollars.
He told the chief he would often be ordered by officers to leave bus shelters while he was eating a meal of coffee and donuts.
“They tell me you can’t be hanging out here,” he said.
“So sometimes there’s a disconnect,” acknowledged Chief Patterson.
“Everyone has a story and it’s important for myself to understand people’s story,” said Patterson, in the company of various agency representatives. He added “The only way to do that is to meet people on their terms and their setting, and have great conversations.”
Patterson’s approach has won high praise from advocates for the homeless. “The chief has been wonderful in reaching out to us and making this collaboration,” said Nadia Pizarro, who chairs the Western New York Coalition for the Homeless.
Chief Patterson was accompanying Sarah Gorry, a homeless outreach case manager with the Matt Urban Hope Center in Buffalo. “If someone is seen by a police officer, they know they can call me,” she said. I probably have been looking for them.”
Several outreach agencies in Erie County have stepped up efforts to end chronic homelessness in Buffalo by the end of the year. President Obama has made the issue a national priority, and seeks to accomplish the same thing by the 2017.
Three years ago there were four hundred thirty people eeking out an existence on Buffalo streets. Now the number is thirty-seven. By the end of the year all may be placed in secure housing according to Dale Zuchlewski, the Executive Director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York.
“We will attract national attention when we do this,” said Zuchlewski.
A short distance from Elmwood Avenue, NFTA officer Dave Zarbo was making the rounds at the Buffalo bus terminal. He had approached several homeless people who tend to gather there.
One man battling addiction and depression had fallen asleep and could not be immediately awakened. Zarbo finally was finally able to engage the man in conversation and learned he was on his way to Batavia where he had found housing.
Since January, transit police officers have been working with outreach workers who set up a satellite office in the terminal.
Jason Flores, an outreach supervisor with Matt Urban, was instrumental in getting the project going. He said the new cooperative spirit has enabled workers to address problems before they escalate. He said police intervention can be critical.
“They’ll give us phone calls whenever clients that have been MIA for awhile appear here,” he said.
Flores is now working to bring in national experts who would offer formal training to all local law enforcement officers in the greater Buffalo area.