City proposes changes for interacting with homeless

Police would curb ‘arrest' approach; fewer obstacles for charitable feeding

SAN ANTONIO – Changes could be coming to the way law enforcement and charitable groups interact with the city’s homeless population.

Instead of handcuffs and fines, treatment and outreach would be offered.

And those who wish to feed the hungry would be able to serve meals without slicing through so much red tape.

"I would like for them to move on to more important business in the city, really,” said Joan Cheever, founder of the Chow Train.

Cheever serves food to the homeless every Tuesday night.

In April, she was cited for it and taken to court. Ultimately, her case was thrown out.

The city's Department of Human Services proposes eliminating the fees and permits currently required by charitable groups wanting to feed the homeless.

Those groups would need to notify the city 24 hours in advance about when and where they plan to serve food.

Groups would be required to remove all trash and leftovers.

There must also be a certified food handler within each group. The fee for that certification would be waived.

Cheever believes the changes are a step in the right direction but not perfect.

“It's kind of offensive to me and to other people with a religious conviction that the government is going to give us rules about how we can or cannot be a good Samaritan,” she said.

But the city maintains it has a responsibility to monitor food safety and must be able to keep a record of the work of charitable groups in order to do that.

The city’s Metropolitan Health District would still have the authority to confiscate and destroy food it deems unsafe.

As part of Wednesday’s proposed changes, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said the way law enforcement interacts with the homeless must be reexamined.

The old approach of arresting and fining the homeless just doesn’t work, he said.

“It's nothing but a vicious cycle,” McManus said. “There is no jail time for a Class C Misdemeanor. You can’t make a homeless person pay a fine.”

SAPD will create what’s called an Impact Team -- a combined effort of law enforcement, medical and mental health services.

The team would be made up of an officer from the SAPD Mental Health Unit, a mental health specialist, an EMT and someone who can provide services through outreach.

The team would create a database of the homeless people they meet on the street, document which services they have received and what help they still need.

McManus also unveiled a strategy for assisting those among the homeless who are mentally ill or incapacitated due to drugs and alcohol.

Those persons could be held in custody up to 72 hours by order of a magistrate judge who could potentially commit them to a facility where they can get the services they need.

But there must be beds and space for that, McManus added.

McManus also said Wednesday that some homeless people have told him they don’t feel safe staying in the courtyard at Haven for Hope, the shelter located downtown.

McManus proposes increasing police presence at Haven for Hope and changing policies that would allow married couples without children to stay together at the shelter.

The Impact Team would be created by January 2016. A six-month grace period would be in place to allow charitable groups to adapt to the new feeding rules.

The City Council could vote on the changes Dec. 17.

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