Police, fire chiefs roll out monumental new program to help homeless

Law enforcement joins mental health specialists to make change on streets

By Courtney Friedman - VJ, Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - San Antonio is throwing away a Band-Aid approach to end homelessness and aiming for more permanent solutions. A monumental program introduced Thursday is a joint effort between many different agencies.

Changing the way an entire city system helps the homeless won't be easy, but San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said it's time.

"Police might be called for a homeless person camped out somewhere they're not supposed to be camped out. Police would come along, we'd either cite them or arrest them," McManus said.

McManus said he's scrapping the "arrest the problem away" approach that never helps homeless and mentally ill people get off the streets.

"That adversarial relationship is just nothing but a circle. It just gets repeated again and again and again," McManus said.

That's why police joined the Fire Department and mental health experts to create what they call an Impact Team.

The team is comprised of two mental health-trained CIT officers, a Fire Department paramedic, a mental health professional and an outreach specialist.

"That outreach person could be a peer, a homeless peer," McManus said.

San Antonio's first Impact Team started work just a week ago. The team canvassed areas of the city and stopped to talk with the homeless and ask what their needs are.

"As soon as they see someone, they're going to approach them," McManus said. "They offer immediate medical care from the paramedic, they will offer services that are available anywhere in the city and they will offer a ride to those places." 

Establishing real relationships helps the homeless and police officers.

The program helps the Fire Department, too. San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said there are many instances where ambulances or fire trucks are sent to help homeless people who don't have medical emergencies. The new program will free up those resources and also save money.

"It takes us on average over seven minutes to get to your home. So every time we're going on another call that's taking a resource that could be coming to your residence, to your emergency, your worst day," Hood said.

McManus and Hood said it's not a quick solution to the homeless problem, but a gradual and persistent one they believe will actually work.

The goal is to have up to four more impact teams on the streets soon. The teams will eventually work seven days a week during daylight hours.

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