By Dunia Dickey
It’s nice to ride in the front of a police car, I thought to myself. It was a rainy Friday night around 10pm and I was going on a ride-along with Sergeant Layla DeStaffany, who is in charge of seven officers of the Denver Police Department’s (DPD) 6th Precinct, covering LoDo and other sections of downtown (her unit is set to expand to 10 officers in 2015). I wanted to see first-hand how her unit operates and what Sgt. DeStaffany and her team are up against.
What I observed was a compassionate, good-faith effort to confront a systemic problem that is beyond the power of the police – or any one actor – to solve.
Our first stop was to check on a homeless man who had bedded down for the night in the relative comfort of a dry spot beneath a tree, next to an abandoned building downtown.
Someone had called to complain about a trespasser. Unlike the other groups of homeless folks we saw, he was older and alone. He had a hernia, he told us. In his eyes I saw gentleness, humility and brokenness, and at the same time, quiet dignity and a dogged determination to keep going. Sgt. DeStaffany and a few of her officers convinced him that the shelter would be drier than his home under the tree, and one of the officers offered to give him a ride over. But where would this man go in the morning? Who would treat his hernia? All we could offer him was a night sheltered from the rain. But we could offer him no hope of anything different to come, no promise of something better, not the next night or any night after that – unless he chose to avail himself of services.
We saw groups of young people, homeless and banded together for mutual protection on the downtown streets and the 16th Street Mall. Some truly seemed like they had no better options. Others seemed to perhaps have read a bit too much Kerouac and Ginsberg – or more likely Hunter S. Thompson, given their age – in school, and had adopted a down-and-out lifestyle, traveling around with no particular destination in mind. I wondered what their families thought of all this. I also wondered if they had underlying mental health or addiction issues, as mentally ill and addicted individuals comprise a disproportionate number of the long-term homeless population.
The goal of Sgt. DeStaffany and her team in these encounters is to engage homeless individuals and encourage them to enter a shelter for the night and then take advantage of services – including the impressive new Colorado Coalition for the Homeless’s Stout Street Health Center and Renaissance Stout Street Lofts; Urban Peak, which provides a continuum of services for homeless youth between the ages of 14 and 24; and the Third Way Center, which serves high-risk, mentally ill, disadvantaged and sometimes homeless adolescents and their families.
Sgt. DeStaffany approached all with authority, but also with respect. She asked, “why are you out here?” “What are your plans for the future?” After some prodding, one young woman retorted, “What if we don’t have a plan?”
But do we as a city, a community, a society, have a plan?
What would it take to fix this broken system and create a durable solution for Denver’s homeless population, including those with untreated mental illness and alcohol or substance abuse issues? We need a comprehensive, long-term solution. Denver’s planned Solutions Center, to be located at 405 S. Platte River Drive, is one piece of the puzzle and a major step in the right direction. So are specialized courts that focus on support and treatment, rather than retribution.
Earlier that eventful Friday, I had attended the 18th Judicial District’s Wellness Court in Arapahoe County (Denver has a similar Drug Court, and there are 78 such specialized problem-solving courts throughout Colorado). The contrast here with what I was to see later that night could not have been more dramatic. Here were stories of recovery, transformation and the promise of something better – the precious commodity that was distinctly missing in Sgt. DeStaffany’s well-intentioned but often futile encounters with the homeless groups downtown. It is important to note that Sgt. DeStaffany’s encounters with homeless persons are often the first point of contact and that some of these individuals eventually go on to become the type of inspiring success stories I witnessed in the Wellness Court.
One gentleman graduating that day spoke about his days as a heroin addict whose future at one point had contained only the possibility of jail or overdose. Another woman had been a meth addict. She spoke about how the treatment and support provided by this court had allowed her to become a better mother. Tears were in abundance as her counselors described her journey of recovery. Who knows how many of those now in the care of the Wellness Court had once survived on the streets.
I was deeply moved by the positive reinforcement and encouragement on the part of Magistrate Judge Bonnie McLean. It was clear to me that this was a court that believed in the abilities and possibilities of its participants. Even when someone had repeatedly failed to comply with the program’s requirements and was taken away in handcuffs for a few days or a week, the intent and words of the judge were never punitive; rather, the message was “We know you can do better.”
We can do better too. We can do better for individuals living on the streets, for those with untreated mental illness, for those with drug and alcohol issues, for those that come into contact with law enforcement largely as a result of such factors. I believe that we are already moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go and this will take time, political will and much collaboration among policymakers, law enforcement, the judicial system, behavioral and physical health providers, and the community.
Ultimately, in order to truly combat these problems, we must believe that people deserve something more than an endless, vicious cycle of mental illness, addiction, homelessness, jail. We must remember that but for our luck, it could be ourselves or one of our loved ones out there on the street. Mental illness and addiction (and the all too commonly resulting homelessness) strike indiscriminately across all sectors of society and socioeconomic levels. “They” could just as easily be “us.” Thus, we have a moral obligation to offer people support, treatment, training, resources, housing solutions.