PASADENA, Calif. — Pasadena police have a new strategy to address the homelessness and mental health crisis affecting Southern California. They say it's been so successful that they're expanding the program that diverts nonviolent homeless calls for service to a team that's more equipped to handle mental health illness than police officers.
The Pasadena Outreach Response Team, or PORT, consists of a firefighter, a social worker/case manager and a peer outreach housing navigator. Together, they tackle the issue of homelessness by finding long-term solutions, one homeless person at a time.
Everything "Bobcat" owns fits in the cart he pulls around with him. He can easily transport it to and from the Pasadena parking lot where he sleeps every night, on the cold concrete with no tent.
"I have to cover my head with my blanket just so I can get a good night's sleep," Bobcat said.
He's the face of Pasadena's homeless and mental health crisis. It's who PORT, the HOPE team and Pasadena police are working together to help.
In a meeting at the police department, Cmdr. Jason Clawson pulled up a map showing more than 7,000 calls for service of homeless and or mental health crises in 2020, but he said the crimes and citations police issued during those calls had been cut in half thanks to the people in the room.
"We may get 900-1,000 actual phone calls into our dispatch center, but of those 350 calls for service that we physically go out on, we see if we can divert those without sending the police," Clawson said.
Calls are diverted when it is established that officers are not equipped to handle a situation involving a homeless person or won't be able to get them back on their feet, Clawson said.
That's where the HOPE and PORT teams come in.
The HOPE team provides both mental health and law enforcement emergency response to those in need of services. While PORT works to find long-term solutions for homeless people so that armed officers can focus on other calls for service.
They say this boots-on-the-ground approach is working. As a result, Pasadena's homeless population has been cut in half over the last decade. However, PORT is still inundated with calls trying to help those who are still homeless, so Pasadena police stepped in to allocate more than $200,000 to establish an additional team.
Nathan Press is the PORT's social worker from Pasadena's Public Health Department. He said they're working around the clock to address many needs in this community.
"We're spread thin. Super thin. There's a great need and so far just a lack of human capital to meet those needs at times," Press explained.
But it's a true passion for helping people without the red tape that has made PORT so successful. For example, they went to pick up Geoffrey Mayne, a man who was homeless for more than a year before PORT found him temporary housing at a local motel.
They've helped him get an ID and checked him into alcohol rehab.
"It's just eliminating barriers," Press said. "So transportation, we transport our clients, holding mail, it's just all about making sure those barriers aren't there."
Now, they're taking him to get his COVID-19 vaccine.
"These guys make me feel special," Mayne said.
PORT is working to secure him permanent housing next, while Mayne is still working through his addiction, but it's a daily battle he's motivated to win as he turns a new leaf.
"It just made being homeless a lot more tolerable. But now that I'm gonna have a home, I can't carry that with me inside, indoors because I might as well be on the streets again," he said.
Before PORT could even get Mayne home, another client called the team's firefighter, Tony Zee, to tell him he's ready to detox.
"Alright, my man, I'm proud of you for calling me," Zee said on the phone.
Zee said this is huge. They've found the man housing, and now he's ready to take the next step.
"For me, it's like planting seeds," he explained. "You put it in there, you help them with an ID, the next thing might be a social security card, but then the next thing might be something huge like, 'I want to go into rehab.'"
As they drop Mayne off, the team gets another call for a homeless encampment at a vacant business.
The team's peer outreach housing navigator, August Jimenez, works for Union Station Homeless Services, finding permanent housing solutions.
He was once homeless himself, so Jimenez brings invaluable, first-person experience with what people need to break these barriers.
"I just hope that I'm able to teach those around me, you know, maybe you can approach it this way, and it doesn't have to be all academic-based," Jimenez explained. "You don't have to refer to people as research studies. You can talk to them as a person."
As they arrive at the call's location, it just so happens the man who was setting up camp was someone the team had been looking for.
"That's what gonna be good about our second team, is that we may touch individuals that we haven't seen in a while because of a service call, and now we found him," Zee said. "Union Station Homeless Services have been looking for him for possible placement for housing."
PORT met Bobcat during a similar situation. He watched them clean his friend's trash and realized he wanted something better for himself.
"It's been over 14 years now that I've been homeless. And I'm about ready for a change," he said.
PORT handed him a card and promised to work with him on the next steps to get housing.
It was all in a day's work on a deep-rooted issue that can only be uprooted, one seed at a time.
Clawson said the Pasadena City Council has approved the funding allocation from Pasadena police, and the Health Department is working to hire the new PORT team.