A newly formed team of five Cleveland County sheriff's deputies will focus on addressing quality of life issues in the county.
The unit will start this week as Norman, the county's largest city, works to solve issues between downtown business owners and the city's homeless population.
Investing in a team of deputies whose time isn't bogged down with patrol or investigative work is important, said Cleveland County Sheriff Chris Amason, especially at a time when many law enforcement agencies are experiencing staffing shortages.
After attending the Nov. 29 county commissioners meeting — in which several downtown business owners voiced concerns of loitering, trespassing and unsanitary conditions — Amason said he was inspired to speed up the process of getting the deputies started.
"I'm not here to criminalize being homeless, that's not my goal," Amason said. "My goal is to ultimately help these people that are down and out and provide them with resources they may not be aware of, but also protect our community."
On Wednesday, almost one week after the sheriff's new unit was announced, signs were posted by the property owner at a homeless encampment on the Canadian River stating the area needed to be vacated by Dec. 14, Norman Ward 1 City Councilor Brandi Studley said. Studley said she regularly helps feed dinner to about 20 people at the river, and said there are 10 to 20 more who stay farther back in the woods.
The city of Norman and the Norman Police Department said the property owner requested their assistance in clearing the property and asked the city to ensure each person was offered services. Mendi Brandon, spokesperson for the sheriff's office, did not respond to questions regarding whether the sheriff was aware of the camp's removal.
This is the second homeless camp this year that has been cleared in Norman. Executive director of Food & Shelter Inc., April Heiple, said tearing down these camps before additional housing is created will only push more of the homeless population to public places like downtown.
"Every camper has been offered all the services available, including access to a housing plan," Norman City Manager Darrel Pyle said in an email. "Every camper was notified weeks ago that the property owner would be clearing the site."
Norman's homeless population — which was 266 at the last point-in-time count in January 2020 — and how to curb it has been a wide topic of discussion this year, with the city hiring the nonprofit Homebase to conduct a study on what gaps are present in homeless services. The 81-page Gaps Analysis, completed in September, identified needs like safe and affordable housing, coordination between service providers and transportation to employment, services and shelter.
Heiple said there can never be enough people working to end homelessness, but with the likely influx of more homeless people downtown she hopes the Cleveland County's new unit will not cause more harm to the population.
"There are certain things that happen just as a result of being homeless, like sleeping on private property is a crime," Heiple said. "I really hope that we don't start to see people being arrested for just simply trying to survive."
'They were there the whole time'
While the issues downtown business owners are experiencing are not new, the frequency of them has risen, Norman Downtowners Association Chairman Stephen Koranda said.
Koranda said he, and many of the downtown business owners, bring up their concerns from a "Christian" mindset. They have compassion for homeless people, he said, but also want to mitigate the impact on downtown business.
Some business owners have had people sitting directly in front of their doors, Koranda said, and some have said they've experienced pushback when asking someone to leave. Others have noticed trash strewn about, as well as defecation due to a lack of public restrooms.
Koranda said he's hopeful this new unit will help turn things around.
Heiple, who lives downtown, said she sees firsthand the issues the business owners are describing. It's a direct correlation to the city's removal of the homeless camp at Alameda Street and Carter Avenue, she said.
"They were there the whole time," Heiple said. "And now they're just very visible because there's no other place for them to sleep, except where you can see them."
Heiple said she is at least thankful those camping at the river have more time to gather their belongings than those who were staying off Alameda. The city reported it removed 70 tons of human waste, rotted food and clothing from the camp.
"They didn't give hardly any notice at all," Heiple said. "And, it may look like garbage to some people, but a man I know lost everything he owned. They put it all in the trash and wouldn't even let him get in there to get this thing that his grandfather had given him that he had kept his whole life."
Real change for Norman's homeless population will require the community to work together toward a common goal, and that's "not just affordable housing, but permanent, supportive housing," Heiple said.
"Everybody has a concern about homelessness," Heiple said. "Some of us are concerned that people are sleeping outside in the cold, and some people are concerned about the way their businesses are affected. I see both sides of that, but the solution is the same. Invest in housing, get people off the street, and they won't have to sleep on Main Street."
Looking for solutions
Before the sheriff's new unit hit the streets Monday, Sheriff Amason met with the Norman Downtowners Association to identify problems and solutions.
Some things Koranda believes would help are more signage downtown that points people to the available public restrooms and informs them on when the warming shelter opens, as well as an increase in sanitation and security.
A similar meeting has not been planned with those who provide services to homeless people, but the sheriff would be open to that, public information officer Mendi Brandon said.
As part of the Homebase Gaps Analysis, homeless people in Norman were surveyed. Just over 75% of them said transportation would be the form of assistance most helpful to them.
Heiple said she could see the sheriff's new unit being helpful by providing transportation, warm clothes and ultimately connecting people with Food and Shelter or other community partners that can help them find a way out of homelessness.
Eventually, though, there comes the issue that there's not enough resources to go around, she said.
"This plan that they have in place to engage people who are homeless and connect them to resources is only as good as the resources we have available," Heiple said. "That's why that investment ... to build up services, to support housing case management — so that when these folks go into housing, they have a support system around them to be successful — that's really a key piece."
Sheriff sought 'specific personalities' for 'community-oriented' unit
The Community Response Unit is something Amason has had on his mind since before he took office.
The unit was made possible after implementing an alternate work schedule at the detention center opened some budget space for the five positions. Four of the deputies will be receiving the normal starting pay of $49,000 annually. The sheriff's office had not provided the unit lieutenant's salary at publication time.
Amason said he hand-selected the deputies for this unit — two were already working for his office and three came from outside law enforcement agencies. One deputy has experience with the crisis intervention team, while another is an instructor in de-escalation tactics. Together, the five have more than 100 years of law enforcement experience, he said.
Their years of experience and training combined with a willingness to be flexible with their work schedule and a commitment to compassionate service are all reasons they were chosen for the unit, Amason said.
"I wanted specific personalities that I thought would work well together and also worked well with the problems in the community," he said.
The unit will use "community-oriented" methods when working to find solutions to problems. For Amason, this means realizing that incarceration is not the "only tool in the toolbox."
"We, as the police, don't have all the answers," Amason said. "And we have to be able to work with our citizens and our business owners to come up with the best solution that's going to go with that problem at the time."
Heiple said the Norman Police Department is one of their most valued community partners, and she hopes to say the same of this new unit.
"I would definitely love to have that partnership with this group so that they not only understand what we do here at Food and Shelter and what our partners do in the community," Heiple said, "but also so that they can also understand what homelessness is, and what trauma informed support and trauma informed care is."
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