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Policing Roseville’s homeless can be messy

Despite strict rules, some issues, like mental health, make challenges hard to tackle
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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Roseville’s generosity has made it a “fairytale land” compared to Sacramento, according to some members of its homeless community — but even outreach from nonprofits and constant vigilance from law enforcement can’t prevent some problems.

As Roseville police move forward with new strategies to keep homelessness from eroding the city’s quality of life, diseases like schizophrenia continue to present nebulous challenges with no good options.

Safe Haven

On a cold, clear Friday morning in December, Roseville police Officer David Flood strolled through a crowd of transients clustered in the basement of the Salvation Army on Lincoln Avenue. Flood is assigned full-time to homeless issues and he knows almost every face he passed. Between the Salvation Army, St. Vincent DePaul, the Gathering Inn and a traveling What Would Jesus Do? van, transients looking for food can usually find it in or near Roseville’s historic quarter. Shelter is also generally available from the Gathering Inn, though only to those willing to follow criteria barring drugs, alcohol and troublesome behavior.

Many of the city’s homeless choose to accept food while maintaining freedom from rules they don’t like, usually sleeping under abandoned houses and bridges, or pooling resources to share tiny motel rooms.  

Making his rounds between Salvation Army and the library on Taylor Street, Flood encountered a few homeless acquaintances willing to talk about the high level of resources available in Roseville.

“The place is like a fairytale land compared to Sacramento,” said Frank Torres, a recovering addict who often spends hours reading in the library. “There are hot meals, showers, clean clothes — you can shave. The Gathering Inn gets people places to stay. Overall, it feels pretty safe, too …It can be crazy in downtown Sac.”

While some homeless may not like the Roseville Police Department having a full-time officer enforcing the city’s strict ordinances — no shopping carts, no Dumpster diving, no alcohol in parks, no campgrounds, no panhandling at freeway ramps, no aggressive panhandling anywhere — many do enjoy the security of knowing they have an immediate contact when they see another homeless person becoming a danger to them or other members of the public.

“A lot of the warnings I get about potential problems actually comes from them,” Flood said of the transients. “Sometimes a new homeless person will suddenly show up in the city that worries the others, or they think could be a threat, and they’ll tell me.”    

New strategies

Flood won’t hesitate to make arrests involving crimes and code violations, but another element of his job is working with community partners to find the best ways to responsibly contain issues from the estimated 630 homeless individuals living in Placer County. This will become increasingly important as the city continues to revitalize Vernon Street as a new arts and culture destination: Vernon Street is a main thoroughfare for homeless foot traffic on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings, as they make their way to the Salvation Army. Flood has worked with Lt. John Morrow of the Salvation Army to enforce a zero-tolerance policy for open containers of alcohol, smoking marijuana or any drug-related activity. Flood also keeps in contact with the Gathering Inn, which runs a day program where homeless individuals can stay, allowing them to avoid loitering around local businesses.

Straightforward communication with property owners is also vital. Later in the afternoon, Flood made his way through five vacant houses along Roseville Road — each rife with trash, graffiti and human waste. Inspecting the filth, the officer even spotted profanity-laced messages on the walls proclaiming his own fame with train-jumpers and squatters. Police suspect prostitution may also have been happening within the row of vacant structures. Given the public health, trespassing and crime impacts associated with these houses, Flood is working with the owners to have them torn down. Dialog with property owners has also eliminated a large number of Roseville’s hidden homeless camps.   

In terms of other tools to deal with the homeless, Roseville police are now able to cite disruptive transients with “exclusionary bans” preventing them from entering parks and libraries for up to a year. Police say the approach has gotten a number of homeless drinkers to be on their best behavior in areas that children frequent.

Flood has personally worked with Placer County prosecutors and judges on “homeless court.” This special wing of the Placer court system allows transients who commit minor offenses and infractions, such as panhandling, illegal camping or having open container of alcohol, to get community service in Roseville instead of fines. It also allows for the offense to be dropped from their record.

“I think it’s a good option for transients who are really thinking about trying to change,” Flood said. “Before we had homeless court, these types of convictions would stack fines on a person and make it that much harder to get back on their feet financially and find work. It’s just like everything else we’re trying: There’s no button you push to make homelessness end, so we try to look for ways to fix problems and minimize impacts on residents — small steps that can go a long way for the average citizen’s quality of life.”

Mental Illness

By 10:45 a.m. that Friday, dispatch was alerting Flood to a homeless woman causing problems at Roseville Square. He pulled up to find the woman dressed in soiled sweats and pushing a shopping cart piled with bags. She appeared to be suffering from extreme paranoia, screaming and crying about a conspiracy of biker gangs she said was trying to kill her. As Flood attempted to determine where the woman had come from, she continued shouting to passersby that “hit men” were watching her, that bikers had infected her with flesh-eating bacteria and that her fingers were starting to rot off.

Flood eventually determined the woman had recently been at a homeless shelter in Grass Valley. Calling a supervisor there, he was informed the woman suffered from mental illness, complicated by ongoing problems with drug addiction.   

Flood attempted to locate family members or outreach programs that might help. Meanwhile, the woman began hollering that she wouldn’t accept help, no matter who he called, because everyone was trying to poison her.

 Flood weighed his options. Screaming and ranting in public is not a crime. While police officers can place a mentally ill person on a 51-50 hold, which involves forced hospitalization, the state welfare code dictates they only have the authority to do so when the person is suicidal or threatening to harm others. The frenzied woman didn’t yet qualify.

Local nonprofit groups like Turning Point and the Gathering Inn attempt to help bring mental health services directly to transients. Yet for mentally ill transients determined to avoid nonprofits and stay on the periphery, little can be done unless they cross the threshold of committing a crime.

In the case of the woman Flood contacted in Roseville Square, she eventually emptied her illegal shopping cart, insisted again she would not take help or voluntarily go to a treatment center, and then ultimately disappeared with no more explanation than when she first arrived.

“Unfortunately, we can’t force mental health services on her,” Flood said.

He hasn’t seen her since.

Scott Thomas Anderson can be reached at scotta@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at ScottA_RsvPT.