Florida Officer Lends Helping Hand to Homeless

July 16, 2012
Tampa Police Department's first homeless liaison is making a difference in the lives of those who live on the streets.

July 16--TAMPA -- She spends her days on Tampa's streets and her nights beneath bridges or among bushes. Once when she was trying to sleep a spider bit her, causing her leg to swell so much she needed to go to a hospital emergency room.

Gloria Jenkins-Leviston, 45, has been homeless in downtown Tampa for months. She is sick of it. It's rough living on the streets, she said, and she is desperate for shelter.

When she saw Tampa Police Officer Dan McDonald last week near Lykes Gaslight Square Park, close to police headquarters, she smiled and waited for him to notice her.

"Excuse me," she said. "Can you help me?"

Since January, McDonald has served as the police department's first homeless liaison.

Census data, McDonald said, shows about 17,000 people in Hillsborough County are out on the streets, temporarily staying with friends, or living in hotels or motels. His goal is to help those in Tampa who want to be helped.

So far McDonald knows of 15 people he directly or indirectly helped find a place to stay.

"We call it street engagement," McDonald, 46, said of his new job. "We don't wait for them to go to us. We go to them."

McDonald drives to makeshift homeless camps, to parks where homeless people live, to convenience stores where they congregate. Sometimes he helps the homeless connect with out-of-state family members. Sometimes he helps them get proper identification or refers them to social services programs.

Tampa police modeled their program after the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's homeless initiative, which started in Town 'N Country in June 2010. That initiative spread elsewhere in the county as well, including the University Area.

The departments have worked collaboratively and so far have helped more than 100 people get off the streets one way or the other.

Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said officers are aware of the area's large homeless population and want to help.

"Homelessness is a societal issue, but obviously law enforcement can't turn a blind eye to it," she said.

Jails in part have become places for those with mental illnesses, and that is not beneficial to the inmate or the taxpayer, nor is it a good use of law enforcement time, Castor said.

Through the initiative, she said, "We're helping the individual; we're helping the community by getting them off of the street; helping law enforcement that they don't get in the same circle of helping the same individuals over and over."

Several officers were interviewed for the liaison position. In McDonald, Castor said, police officials saw an interest, an aptitude and a passion for the work.

"It's working out great," she said of the initiative. "Dan McDonald is doing a fantastic job. The word has gotten out on the street."

McDonald, who has spent most of his 14 years of police experience on patrol, said the liaison work is gaining momentum as the tightly knit homeless community is beginning to trust him. Many homeless people believe police officers only want to arrest them, McDonald said, and it is challenging to convince them otherwise.

"One guy actually said to me, 'You pass the test,' " said McDonald, a Manchester, England, native.

Still, some homeless people are openly hostile to McDonald when he approaches. One man had such a poor attitude that "he went to the back of the line," McDonald said. "With 17,000 people out there, I should get to him in about 400 years."

The police department's goal isn't to hurry people off the streets in time for next month's Republican National Convention, McDonald said. This is a long-term project designed to offer meaningful help.

One person McDonald helped get off the downtown streets, 46-year-old Dean Sawyers, now has a place to stay and a job with the downtown "Clean Team," which provides maintenance to downtown gutters, sidewalks and public spaces.

"It's better," Sawyers said of his life. "I get better rest, take showers and stuff."

Sawyers, 46, wanted a job but lacked motivation to get one without a push, McDonald said.

"He took me down there, got the application and stuff," Sawyers said.

McDonald also has worked to help Elsie Powell, 59.

Powell has been homeless -- off and on -- for years. She said she receives about $700 a month in disability pay because of a back injury, but many apartment complexes have turned her down.

It's a difficult life on the streets; some people are violent and steal, Powell said. She said she wants help but many other people like living on the streets and have no use for McDonald.

"He does an excellent job," Powell said of McDonald. "A lot of people don't want his help, but he really does try."

Jenkins-Leviston wants a place to stay, but she doesn't know which way to go or what to do to get off Tampa's streets.

Her luck has been bad since her husband died of cancer three years ago, she said.

The Mississippi native said she has depression and had a brain tumor removed, and she still has problems associated with that.

After meeting McDonald, she said, she believes in him. She saw him talking with another homeless woman and trying to help, and she wanted his help, too.

McDonald took down Jenkins-Leviston's information and referred her to a homeless recovery program on Tampa Street. He gave her his telephone number and said if she needs a ride to Social Security, he could help.

"I was so happy," she said of meeting McDonald. "Thank God."

Copyright 2012 - Tampa Tribune, Fla.

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