One day into a new effort by Palm Springs police to aid in the homelessness crisis and you wouldn’t blame Police Chief Andy Mills if he proclaimed it a success. He won’t, but the data speaks for itself.
An outreach team consisting of eight of Mills’ officers, accompanied by a representative of Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, took to the streets, ventured under bridges, and went into washes in the city on Wednesday with new orders: Make contact with and offer assistance to as many unhoused residents as possible, and make criminals who circulate among them aware that police are watching.
At day’s end, 143 people were contacted, and a handful were willing to accept assistance — a rare event on first contact.
The goal of the department’s Operation Relentless Sun — announced last week — is to not only count and interact with people who live “under the stars” in multiple places throughout the city each day, but to be “consistent and firm” with people who have violent outbursts or take advantage of the homeless.
In some cases, criminals who deal narcotics also extort unhoused residents, making them pay with cash, possessions, drugs, or sex to live in an encampment. The hope is that if police can apply enough pressure on the roughly two dozen people they know are engaging in this behavior, outreach workers and officers will have a better chance of getting through to people who want help.
Cleaning tent encampments is not a top priority of the new effort, Mills said, but the one on Crossley Road near Walmart currently presents such a health hazard that its residents need to be dispersed. Arrests, which will be a priority, were purposely avoided on the first day, Mills said, but they’re likely to come soon. That’s thanks in part to cooperation with some members of the homeless community police made contact with on Wednesday.
“Some of the people we interacted with pointed out who was trafficking drugs and who are burglars,” Mills said. “There will be arrests, but we didn’t want to confuse people we were talking with on the first day.”
Arrests are important, but so is the math officers are performing. Mills said members of the department’s Homeless Outreach Team will be counting unhoused people in the city every day, providing what many hope will be the most accurate estimate of people who live on the streets.
The counting is similar to the Point-In-Time homeless count conducted by Riverside County on a single day each year (one of which occurred last week) but different in that officers are not conducting extensive surveys when they speak with people. Also unlike the county effort, those who live in tents or in out-of-the-way nooks and crannies are more likely to come out when it’s a police officer and not a citizen volunteer who asks to speak with them.
But while officers may appear intimidating in their uniforms, Mills said that’s not the goal. He praised members of the Outreach Team who displayed “impressive social skills” this week when dealing with situations that are often both gut-wrenching and heartbreaking.
“They will be out there every day,” he said of the team. “They are the help arm.”