Special team builds cases to help homeless

When most cops build a case, the end result is often putting someone behind bars. But for San Mateo Downtown Officer David Johnson, building a case can mean saving a mentally ill homeless person’s life.

Johnson is the point man for the Homeless Outreach Team in his agency’s region. There are five such teams in San Mateo County, each a partnership between city, county, and private nonprofit agencies.

The San Francisco Examiner recently met up with Johnson to walk his beat with him. Also present was Steve Carey, program manager for the Vendome, a former single room occupancy hotel in downtown San Mateo. The property is now run by the InnVision Shelter Network to provide housing and support to local homeless individuals.

“People we used to have to arrest on the streets, we now have them housed here at the Vendome,” Johnson said.

While the Vendome has just 16 rooms, Carey noted the operation offers service and support beyond housing. Area homeless people know they can come to him for help.

One example was a homeless man the Examiner had earlier observed sitting in the parking lot of a nearby business. Recognizing the man’s description, Carey said, “Oh yeah, we gave him some bus tokens and fed him, because he was starving.”

Some of the team’s work involves urging people to take their medications or convincing them to get sober, Johnson said, and their biggest challenges are those who refuse treatment.

Last year, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors ratified Laura’s Law, which enables courts to mandate outpatient treatment for individuals who may be a danger to themselves or others. But even with that new tool, Johnson said when it comes to taking somebody off the street against their will, the bar is set quite high.

And that’s where his ability to build a solid case comes in. Johnson cited the example of a woman who had a pattern of stealing from local merchants and relieving herself in public.

Although mentally ill, Johnson said the woman had not previously met the criteria for a 5150 hold. But over time, the lawman noticed a decline in her health, and by working diligently to document her issues, he was able to convince a court to order her into treatment.

“She’s now in a care home; housed, well-fed, and in good spirits, because of the case I was able to build,” Johnson said.

San Mateo Chief of Police Susan Manheimer said the town’s Homeless Outreach Team bears the imprint of lessons she learned years ago, reaching out to homeless people in The City’s Tenderloin neighborhood when she was a San Francisco Police Department employee.

Manheimer said case management is a key innovation in how the team operates, because instead of isolated, complaint-driven police contacts with homeless people, there is institutional memory, allowing team members to track individuals’ health and welfare over time.

San Mateo’s Homeless Outreach Team currently has a caseload of 25 chronically homeless people, Manheimer noted, and as Carey and Johnson try to assist those individuals, they have help from substance abuse counselors, Veterans Administration workers, and other experts.

“From the beginning, I pitched this to the county as a multi-disciplinary outreach,” Manheimer said.

Chronic homelessness is defined as being homeless for 15 years or longer, Johnson said. Beyond his team’s caseload of 25, the downtown officer said it’s hard to know for sure how many homeless people live in San Mateo, but he estimated the total number could be about 100.

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