Photo: Jerry Baker, FreelanceHarris County Sheriff's Office Deputy and Homeless Outreach Team member Luke Ditta, right, and Kristyn Stillwell, executive director of the Hope Haven ministry to the homeless, visit a homeless man.
In an effort to help the area's more than 4,000 homeless residents, the Harris County Sheriff's Office has started a new outreach program.
The Homeless Outreach Team provides transportation to transitional housing or doctor's appointments and offers food, water, clothing, bedding and hygiene kits. The team's primary goal is to help the homeless find housing.
"Typically, our day revolves around helping people who cannot help themselves," sheriff's Lt. Robert Henry said. "We help people in need of housing, mental-health care. It's very fulfilling. It's a nontraditional police role. It's satisfying to be able to help our community in this way."
Henry, a 33-year veteran at the sheriff's office, started the program in November after seeing the growing need in the community.
"It's been a career-long goal of mine to help people who are mentally ill and to help people who are homeless, and sometimes there's a cross connection between the two," he said.
The idea behind the outreach team is to help the homeless population rather than continuously arresting them for loitering, Henry said.
"We're excited about it because No. 1, it's the right thing to do," he said. "We have a responsibility as human beings to help others."
In 2011, the Harris County Sheriff's Office began its Crisis Intervention Response Team to respond to calls involving mentally disturbed residents. In the last four years, the team has diverted 1,400 mentally ill residents from jail to a psychiatric setting.
The Homeless Outreach Team is a spinoff and expansion from that. In October, Henry approached Sheriff Ron Hickman with the idea.
"The sheriff really supported us on this," Henry said. "He told us, 'I see your vision, go do it.' "
Henry said he often saw the boomerang effect of ticketing and jailing homeless panhandlers.
"If you can't afford breakfast, you probably cannot afford a ticket," he said. "And if you don't pay the ticket, it turns to a warrant. We find you again because you have no alternative, and now you have a warrant for your arrest. So, our first responder is taking a homeless person downtown to the jail to get booked in."
Upon a person's release from jail, the cycle started again.
"We are criminalizing homelessness when really it's not anyone's choice," Henry said. "It's a very sad place to be. I don't think anyone woke up and said, 'I want to be homeless.' "
The number of financially unstable households in the northwest region continues to grow with the population, said Rebecca Landes, vice president of program services at Northwest Assistance Ministries. Hundreds of families and seniors struggle to pay for basic needs, primarily food, she said.
NAM has also increased its homeless prevention services by 6 percent from a year ago. Through several grants and partner agencies, including the sheriff's office, NAM helps homeless families find affordable housing.
The Homeless Outreach Team is possible thanks to private donations from two Texas residents who gave a total of $140,000 to the sheriff's office to start the program.