WASHINGTON – Under a bridge off K Street, not far from one of Washington’s busier business districts, two Metropolitan Police officers rouse a homeless man sleeping in a plywood shelter.
“Wake up, sir,” says Officer Charles Baumgart as he shines his flashlight on the ground, checking for any nearby weapons, drugs or bottles. Baumgart asks the man to drag the plywood back to the edge of a nearby construction site. “It’s going to get cold tonight,” he says. “You’d better check into a shelter.”
This day there is only one man under the bridge, and two or three other piles of blankets. But Baumgart and his partner, Officer Andrew Struhar, say there used to be a veritable hotel, with dozens of homeless people sleeping in cardboard or plywood shelters.
It is the officers’ job – and the job of other policemen working with the city’s homeless – to ensure that the makeshift hotel isn’t erected again, there or in other parts of the city.
The officers are part of an “enhanced enforcement patrol program” launched on March 7 by Police Chief Larry D. Soulsby.
The patrol expands on a Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT Squad, formed by the department last April to dismantle large camps and distribute information on shelters, food wagons and substance abuse hotlines.
The new patrol focuses on broader “quality-of-life” crimes, including panhandling and drinking on the streets of Washington, as well as more serious crimes such as gang violence, said Lt. James Cullen, who supervises the 2nd District patrol.
Four hundred officers make up the patrol, including officers from special intelligence and narcotics units, Cullen said.
The program, loosely patterned after crime-reducing efforts in New York City, has had significant effects in just a few weeks, Cullen said.
“Arrests are up, crime is way down,” he said, by as much as 33 percent over the previous 28-day recording period.
Most of the arrests, he said, were for crimes like drinking or urinating in public, although at least one arrest was made for bank robbery and several for forgery.
Business managers along K Street in Northwest, one of the “targeted areas” of the patrols, have seen some differences.
Two arrests were made in recent weeks outside the Cup’a Cup’a espresso bar on K Street, said store manager Mehrzad Shahraki. Police officers routinely patrol and help shift non- paying customers from the store’s sidewalk seating, he said. “We get a lot of those activities here.”
Michael Ferrell of the Coalition for the Homeless in the District said that if laws are being broken, then moving offenders along is justifiable. Otherwise, the executive director said, the issue “goes beyond homelessness to larger issues of civil liberties.”
During a recent patrol, Baumgart comes across a problem at a bus shelter near Dupont Circle in Northwest. Three men and an overloaded shopping cart surround a tell-tale brown paper bag.
None of the men will admit to owning the 40-ounce beer it contains. “Nobody tells us the truth,” Baumgart laments.
It is illegal to have open containers of alcohol on District streets.
The beer is poured out in a trash can. The men and the cart are moved along, leaving the shelter for bus riders.
Meanwhile, a man on L Street in Northwest is blurring the line on panhandling by placing the can with which he is collecting change in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to make a slight detour.
With panhandling, it is legal to ask for money in the District, but you cannot block the sidewalk, stop traffic, or approach too closely to an ATM or a Metro opening, the officers said.
After checking to see if the man is wanted for any crimes, the officers give him explicit instructions to keep the can out of foot traffic. They also give him a warning, instead of a $50 ticket.
“They panhandle to fill whatever need they have,” Struhar says. The officers hand the man a card with a list of shelters, food wagon stops and alcohol and drug treatment hotlines, and move on. -30-