Tuesday, January 23, 2018
News Roundup

Police agencies tackle homelessness to meet needs, fight crime

Mike Nirschl can't remember the last time he leaned back in a dentist's chair and opened wide.

"It's probably been a couple of years," the 39-year-old Tampa man said last week after thinking for a moment. "I floss and brush every day, but you still need to see a dentist."

Nirschl has been distracted by more important priorities — trying to find work and keeping a roof over his head. He has lost two jobs in the last several months and been homeless twice, spending the last stint in a tent in the woods in Citrus Park.

A checkup could be on the horizon for Nirschl, though, if he's ready to face the dental pick.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department, working with the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, will hold their second quarterly outreach event for homeless and low income people.

The Dec. 13 event, to be held in the parking lot of the Family Dollar at the corner of Tampa Street and Columbus Drive, brings together a variety of providers to serve a needy population.

Along with the dental checkups and cleanings, there will be free health screenings, flu shots and vaccines. Visitors can sign up for health insurance through the county's health care plan, get an identification card from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, and sign up for food stamps. They can apply for a free cell phone, get a hair cut and a hot meal and do their laundry. And they can ride away on refurbished bicycles unclaimed from the Sheriff's Office evidence room.

All the services are free for those who qualify.

The event is part of a broader homeless outreach effort by the Sheriff's Office and Tampa police that started several years ago to take a preventive approach to crime, said Randi Whitney, a homeless liaison officer for Tampa police.

Fewer desperate people with untreated mental health or addiction issues means fewer crimes, from public urination to burglary and even violent offenses, Whitney said.

"If we can get people the services they need and get them back on their feet, it's going to lower the crime rate," Whitney said. "It's a different way of fighting crime, and I think we're making a huge difference."

The Sheriff's Office and Tampa police started their homeless outreach programs about five years ago with one deputy and one officer . Now there are two officers and five deputies.

They use everyday dispatch calls as a way to reach people in need. But there are also targeted missions on the second Tuesday of every month, when they set out on foot with a team of representatives from agencies such as the Tampa Housing Authority, Northside Mental Health, DACCO drug treatment center, St. Vincent DePaul and Tampa Crossroads.

"We go where the biggest populations are or the biggest number of complaints, and we saturate those areas," said Deputy Josh Boyer, who is assigned to District 2 in the east part of the county.

That tends to be in the city because people want to stay close to where they can get hot meals, shelter and other services.

Earlier this year, the advocates decided to add another strategy — set up shop in the epicenter of the homeless population and hope people come.

The first event, held in September, attracted 150 to 200 people.

"It was so successful without any advertising that we decided to establish it as a quarterly event," Whitney said.

Nirschl, the recently homeless Tampa man, plans to be there.

He first learned about the homeless outreach program when a deputy who gave him a trespass warning in Brandon handed him Boyer's card. He's now staying in a boarding house and has a part-time job as a Salvation Army bell ringer, but hopes to qualify for a cell phone and get his teeth cleaned.

"It's a godsend," he said. "They're going to provide you with the resources you need for your particular situation but it's up to you to go out and do it."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

"If we can get people the services they need and get them back on their feet, it's going to lower the crime rate."

Randi Whitney,

Homeless liaison officer for Tampa police

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