New St. Petersburg police unit helps homeless by getting to know them

It takes time to build a rapport with those living on the street or in the woods. That’s how the new Police Assisting the Homeless unit, or PATH, is slowly making inroads.
Published July 18
Updated July 19

ST. PETERSBURG — The golf cart stocked with plastic bags of personal hygiene items and handwritten messages of encouragement made its way toward a homeless camp off 31st Street S. Behind a curtain of trees, an elderly woman sat alone on a plastic chair, amid dirt-caked dishes, pots and pans and piles of clothing.

Her smile greeted St. Petersburg police Sgt. Ryan Hilsdon and Officer Dominick Filipponi, members of the department’s new Police Assisting the Homeless unit, or PATH.

Betty Newmon, gaunt and clad in too much clothing for a sweltering summer's day, spoke of turning 77 in two days. She said she's been living in the woods for about three months. But the unit’s officers, who have been visiting her regularly since the group was formed in January, said it's been longer.

“Hopefully, by the grace of God, I'll get out of here,” she said. But not on this day.

Newmon just wasn't ready, even as flies buzzed around the tent she said she bought at Walmart and transported to the brush-tangled site in a shopping cart.

“She's been saying that she wants to accept services,” said Hilsdon, who leads the unit, which is comprised of a supervisor and seven officers.

“Maybe she is not ready today, but at least in two or three weeks, she might be ready,” said St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, when told of the woman’s story. “She knows that someone is going to get in touch with her. She's really become a person to them.”

The chief shared details of the Police Assisting the Homeless program during a recent Council of Neighborhood Associations meeting. “Homelessness is not a crime,” he said.

The unit was created to tackle homelessness across the city, he told the Tampa Bay Times.

“Every community has their own homeless issues and that's what they are addressing,” he said. “Those officers know where the homeless people are and they are addressing their needs.

“Some people need help and they don't know where to go. Now it seems it is starting to work.”

In the past, the department dedicated one officer and social worker to the issue.

The unit made 2,169 contacts with homeless people between Jan. 1 and June 30, Hilsdon said, though some contacts might have involved the same people. Of those contacts, 923 accepted help, such as transportation to shelters and substance abuse and mental health providers. Veterans were taken to the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System.

In some cases, the sergeant said, the unit buys tickets for the homeless to travel to a relative or friend who accepts responsibility for their care. Hilsdon said he has bought 26 bus tickets since January.

Then there are those, like Newmon, who choose to remain on the streets. Officers continue building a rapport and offering help.

“There's a big human interaction to all of this,” Filipponi said. “You have to meet someone on the street several times. It takes about 10 interactions for them to say, maybe he's not here to see if we're going to get into trouble.”

Members of the unit, who receive crisis intervention training to learn how to interact with the mentally ill, find satisfaction in their work, Hilsdon said.

“You see how these people are living, with the rain and the heat and the cold weather,” he said. “It's very rewarding when you make contact with someone who is homeless or down on their luck, or have underlying issues, for me and my guys to get them back on their feet.”

Hilsdon is authorized to spend small sums to buy necessities for the homeless, using money donated by the public at 13 yellow “The Power of Change” meters downtown. “I can personally buy a bus pass or a pair of work boots so a person could go to work, make small purchases like oral hygiene stuff,” he said. The sergeant has even bought diapers.

Theresa Jones, the city's manager of veterans, homeless and social services, said donations to the meters run about $200 to $300 a month. While the unit is focused on getting help to those living on the streets, it still enforces the law and curbs activities such as panhandling and drug use.

At downtown’s Williams Park, once a haven for the homeless, the numbers are much lower these days. A military veteran sat under a tree one recent morning. Filipponi, who served in the Army, learned that the man had received a special housing voucher for homeless veterans, but had yet to take advantage of it. The officer spent several minutes urging him to do so.

“We have come to notice that there are quite a few veterans among the homeless,” he said. “There are guys in their 70s from the Vietnam War living on the streets.”

Some of the homeless have jobs, Hilsdon said: “It’s basically a transition. They are trying to save money.”

He added that some refuse help because of a reluctance to follow the rules of places that might give them shelter. Like the man and woman carrying a bag of clean towels they had just washed at a laundromat for a nearby car wash. Sometimes they also pick up trash to earn a few dollars.

That day, the officers dropped in on Jayar Mira, 70, whose home is under a blue tarp in an alley near downtown. He smiled as the officers approached. “It's so hot,” he said.

Mira pointed to a patch of dirt where he recently grew tomatoes and carrots. He said he's content where he is.

“Nobody bothers me here, except for the mosquitoes,” he said.

One of the most visible homeless persons the team is attempting to help is “Homeless Joe,” known for lounging on the sidewalk off Third Street S, near the Salvation Army. He turned down an apartment from the Boley Centers, but Hilsdon said his team will keep trying to get him off the streets.

“We believe if we consistently make contact with these people and make an attempt to help them, that one day they will break the barrier,” he said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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