The Homeless Outreach Team within the Oklahoma City Police Department is tasked to connect the city’s homeless population with agencies and organizations.
They have a unique role that not all officers, and most city residents, don’t understand.
“When I first came onto this unit, a senior officer said that all I was doing on the team was social work. I asked him what part of police work is not social work,” Sgt. Bobby Prater told Free Press with an easy smile.
The twelve-year veteran of the Oklahoma City Police Department and ten-year veteran Sgt. Felix Valedez take pride in their unique assignment of seeking out and helping the homeless in the city.
Prater was assigned to the team February 2015 and Valedez in November of 2016.
The model is based on the concept that addressing problems with a city’s homeless population is not just a matter of making more arrests.
It’s true that almost all patrol officers come into contact with the homeless from time to time.
But, unless the officer has arrested the individual they are talking to before, they probably won’t know them or what their unique problems are.
HOT team’s primary job is to develop closer relationships with the neediest and most vulnerable segment of Oklahoma City’s population.
As the team does that, they are better able to connect homeless individuals to community agencies and organizations that can help the most.
“The purpose of our unit is to find an alternative to arrest,” said Prater.
Instead, it’s their job to work out problems that occur between the homeless and neighboring businesses and even between each other.
To make an arrest when another kind of intervention is possible helps avoid the compounding of problems often encountered by the sheltered or homeless poor.
When the homeless are arrested and thrown in jail, most often they can’t afford to pay fines or the fees the county charges them from their time spent.
That leads to warrants and an endless cycle of further arrests.
“What good is digging the hole deeper for them going to do in helping them with their recovery? Ultimately, we try to offer them the out,” said Prater.
“If you’re doing right, if you are talking to the right people and you are going for recovery, then we will work with you and help you get there,” Prater said.
“But, if you’re going to be the person on the opposite end of the spectrum where you’re out there trying to victimize other homeless people, then we will make an arrest.”
On the day Free Press interviewed Valedez and Prater at the Bricktown police substation, they had just completed going out with volunteers in the dark hours of the annual Point-in-Time count of the city’s homeless.
The officers both apologized for their uniforms being dirty.
They hadn’t had time to change from tromping through brush and culverts making their way to camps their volunteer groups were assigned to.
The Point-in-Time count coordinators use a map that is compiled by police and other agencies that help the homeless.
Prater and Valedez helped with the map and then did a lot of talking up the count in those camps days before it happened.
See our coverage of the count.
Their work ahead of time was one reason volunteers came back with stories of how cooperative people were.
“Most of the people my group talked to said they were expecting us,” said Dan Straughan earlier that morning. He’s the executive director of the Oklahoma City Homeless Alliance.
“We really didn’t have any trouble at all.”
Both of the officers said there are rewards in seeing some people make progress, especially when they are struggling with drugs or alcohol and begin to recover.
Valedez said he is starting to see more people opening up to them and allowing them to help.
“Other officers will call us with questions sometimes during the day shift,” said Valedez.
He values being a resource other officers can use when they are trying to find a good route to take with a homeless person in trouble.
When someone is motivated to help themselves it’s definitely rewarding,” said Prater. “Eventually people call and say it’s time. Can you get me into rehab?”
Both said that’s when they know they are having a positive effect.