By The Office of Alan Rosen
Three nights a week, the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office hits the street to check on the homeless population.
It’s a team of six deputies, four of whom are reserves. The reserves are not paid for their time. They do it because they find the work rewarding.
“Occasionally, we see some real progress,” said Captain John Moritz, who is in charge of the Precinct 1 Homeless Outreach Team.
Moritz and his team do what they can every day to make the lives of the homeless a little more comfortable. Sometimes it’s as simple as giving them a toothbrush and toothpaste. Sometimes it’s a pair of socks.
More often than not, the single thing that seems to have the most significant effect is the simple act of showing the homeless they are not invisible. We don’t just pass by without acknowledging them. By stopping to simply talk to them or offer them a bottle of water, their spirit seems restored to a degree, making them feel like part of the community again. We know that’s only part of the answer.
Today in Harris County, experts suggest the homeless population numbers close to 4,000 on any given day.
In late 2016, Constable Alan Rosen saw a need for something more to be done to address the growth of the homeless population in Precinct 1, an area which includes the Heights and Downtown Houston. He began to discuss possible solutions with his command staff.
“Being homeless is not a crime,” Rosen said. “I knew we had to figure out a way to have a better understanding of the challenges endured daily by those living on the street.
“Last fall, Precinct 1 Captain Kevin Williams and Deputy Rachel Wyne from our Mental Health Division spent three days undercover living as if they were homeless for a segment called ‘In Their Shoes’ produced in partnership with Star of Hope Mission and KSBJ. The experience gave us valuable insight about life of the homeless population. We’ve learned what a significant component mental illness is among the homeless. While the county, state and country as a whole have made strides toward addressing some of the underlying mental health issues, more work needs to be done.”
Interestingly, the laws in Texas limit what our deputy constables can do in reference to the homeless. If the person, for example, is located within the city limits, only a city police officer can enforce city ordinances that apply. The laws, however, do not prohibit deputy constables from attempting to help the homeless. Rosen saw an opportunity for more to be done.
In May 2017, Moritz came to Precinct 1 following a decades-long career in law enforcement. Rosen tasked Moritz with creating the office’s first Homeless Outreach Team. In that time, we have grown from just Moritz to the team of six. We have developed ongoing partnerships with Covenant House, Harmony House, the Star of Hope, the Beacon and other agencies which can assist those who are homeless.
In September 2018, Harris County opened the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center. This innovative program gives law enforcement a community-based alternative for those with mental illness who have been picked up for low-level, non-violent offenses. Precinct 1 deputies also use The Sobering Center as a resource for homeless. In the last year, our team has taken more than three dozen people to one facility or the other for treatment or assistance.
Moritz and Rosen believe in providing a hand “up” not a hand “out.” They know there are certain things which the public, meaning well, often does which contributes to the cycle of homelessness.
“They’re going to stay there as long as they get money or food,” Moritz said.
He admits there are those among the homeless population who will refuse help or shy away from organizations because of rules or restrictions they may impose in exchange for shelter or housing. But he insists there is great need and a reason to focus nonetheless on those who will accept assistance.
Donations offered through the Harris County Constable Precinct 1 Foundation help us fund ongoing efforts to provide personal hygiene kits, clothing and a dedicated vehicle, which the team uses in this work. The funding also pays for the body camera worn by the deputy in that vehicle, the computer and camera which are mounted in the vehicle, and a portable fingerprinting system which helps us determine identities on location so we can best find resources to help each person we encounter. As we identify each person, we are able to give them an identification card which helps them qualify for programs and services they would not be able to receive without that ID.
For more on the Harris County Constable Precinct 1 Foundation and how you can support this worthy cause, search the foundation name on Facebook.