The answer awaits for a familiar question on the street

Where am I supposed to go?”

I’ve heard this question before, at similar volume, from many people over the years. It usually signals a homeless citizen pushed to the end of their rope by multiple police requests that they “move along.”

Such requests invariably come at the behest of another citizen, usually a nearby property owner or manager, who has called to complain about people sleeping and/or loitering on surrounding streets or sidewalks.  Unfortunately, nobody has supplied the police with a good answer regarding “where to.”

This was a little different, however. Mr. O’Dea’s eyes were wide and a little wild, his arms were moving everywhere and his pacing was incessant. His explanation about why he was keeping a six-foot-tall pile of belongings here on the sidewalk was irrational and meandering. And my respectful, soft tone wasn’t making mellow like it usually does.

Matt was right, it was a mini-psychward down here.

Matt is the officer assigned to this industrial part of the precinct. He has worked here for two decades, answering 911 calls and non-emergency calls, many of the latter regarding the homeless residents of the neighborhood who have also been here for years. He knows all the people living on the street and they all know him as “Officer Matt.” He is known for his compassion and patience, particularly toward the homeless.

Mr. O’Dea was one of three people Officer Matt was concerned about, all camping on the same block under an overpass, and all probably suffering from mental illness.  The second, Mr. Wyatt, sat all day in his sleeping bag on the sidewalk, rarely moving, a pile of discarded food containers and cigarette butts slowly building around him.  The third man, Mr. Walker, regularly added alcohol to his illness and was becoming increasingly unpredictable and aggressive when Officer Matt would contact him. He would yell and pace and walk menacingly toward Officer Matt before turning away.

A few others were regularly spending the night on this block, but would pack up and leave in the morning. O’Dea, Wyatt and Walker all hung around during the day, however, growing their piles of rubbish and drinking beer. A business owner, who had spent a pile of money to renovate a neighboring building, was calling incessantly for something to be done about these guys and the trash, feces and disorder they created on the sidewalks.

After disengaging from Mr. O’Dea, Matt and I discussed what to do about the three men.

We could certainly call our mobile crisis unit, which is a mental health worker paired with a police officer.  We were skeptical that anyone would be able to convince any of these guys to voluntarily accept treatment, however, and the unit would take time to respond because of their backlog.

One shorter term option could be to continue to contact these guys and press them about cleaning up and moving along during the day, and maybe issue citations if we caught them drinking in public. But particularly as Mr. Walker deteriorated, our guts told us that risked a violent reaction.  Was it worth someone getting hurt?

We chose short-term option two: drive away, leaving the sidewalk situation to fester and the business owner to fume.

At the precinct I discussed the situation with my supervisor, who brought up a good point. If we were concerned that one of these men might react unpredictably and possibly violently to contact, wouldn’t it be better that he go after an officer rather than some unsuspecting, untrained, unarmed citizen who happened by? Isn’t dealing with this possible threat one of the reasons why society maintains a police force?

The next morning we returned to the block and found what appeared to be drops of blood splattered on the street. I worried that my sergeant had been prescient, and some passerby had indeed been clobbered the night before.

We found no other evidence of a fight, however. Maybe it wasn’t really blood. We took photos of the possible crime scene just in case, but then moved on to our original task of waking up the campers and encouraging them to clean up and start their day.

I woke a guy wrapped like a mummy in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk. He slowly stirred, uncovering his head and face and turning toward me.

It was Mr. Walker. His left eye was swollen shut, and his nose was twice normal size with dried blood caked underneath it.  Sifting through the various, mostly nonsensical responses to my questions about what had happened, I was able to get that it was a fight over a campsite last night, and he wouldn’t tell me who assaulted him.

I called for a medical crew to come check him out, and he asked to be taken to the hospital. He grabbed his sleeping bag and walked himself into the back of the ambulance.

I watched as the most threatening — and at the same time most vulnerable — character in this surreal saga was driven to one of the most capable, modern and expensive emergency departments in the state. Assuming they don’t find any hidden damage, I suspect they will probably give him an ice pack and a hefty bill that the rest of us will ultimately pay.

In a bizarre way, maybe this is the least we should be doing for Mr. Walker — at least until society is able to answer Mr. O’Dea’s original question about where to go, or prevent him and his companions from having to ask it in the first place.

4 responses to “The answer awaits for a familiar question on the street

  1. A very thoughtful piece. Thanks to Officer Pickett for his honesty and openness. It would be awesome, although understandably unlikely, to have Mr. Walker’s account of those days and that experience as well.

  2. Another amazing piece from Officer Pickett. Thank you for bringing some sense to the conversation. We need real solutions, and relying on the Police to solve our much larger, systemic problems is unsustainable.

  3. Thank you Officer Pickett for writing this and giving us your perspective. I have a question for you? While I was helping with the homeless street count the week before last I heard about another homeless bashing and the search for a yellow truck spotted at the scene. Last week one of my disabled homeless clients told me about another incident. From someone who is a little more in the know than we generally are how prevalent is violence against people experiencing homelessness?

  4. Robert Pickett

    I have not seen any statistics regarding the question you ask, and it is in statistics where the answer lies.

    If I were to simply give you my impressions based on my own experiences, I would say that violence against people experiencing homelessness perpetrated by other people experiencing homelessness is much more prevalent than violence perpetrated against homeless people by people who are housed–which is what I assume about the perpetrators in the incidents you mention above.

    A better answer would come from someone experiencing homelessness!

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