Westminster police provide HOPE for the homeless
When the sun is blazing, their job becomes a little more difficult.
“It’s really hot out today, so I don’t know if anyone will be out,” said Westminster officer Dave Ferronato.
Still Ferronato, accompanied by Orange County Mental Health Specialist Christine Nguyen, search for homeless.
They aren’t there to write tickets or usher transients across city borders.
They simply want to help.
“It’s a lofty goal to say we want to end homelessness,” Ferronato said. “But if we can at least help some of these people get access to resources, it may not completely end their situation, but it should at least improve it.”
Ferronato and Nguyen are the department liaisons to deliver on WPD’s project HOPE (Homeless Outreach Positive Engagement).
About two years ago, Westminster PD added the outreach program to its multi-faceted mental health program that launched in 2003, said Cmdr. Mike Chapman.
“Mental illness and homelessness is a multilayered problem so we try to have a multilayered approach,” he said. “There’s not one cookie cutter solution.”
The department’s mental health program includes making specialists available to respond to calls, more training for police officers and improved access to services for those who need it.
“Writing tickets and making warrant arrests doesn’t work,” Chapman said. “By improving services on the front end, we can make an impact.”
On a recent Friday, Ferronato pulls up to a man sitting in the grass under the shade of a large tree.
The man sips on a bottle of clear liquid.
“This is water, not booze,” he tells Ferronato, pouring a bit of the liquid on the grass as if displaying the liquid has no odor.
“I know it is,” the officer replies with a smile.
The man, who calls himself Gary, is known for favoring another clear liquid; but on this day, he forgoes the vodka and is just trying to stay cool in the 90-degree heat.
Gary speaks with a slur and drags his left foot – reminders of the stroke he suffered years earlier.
He wears a brown shirt that reads “Hard Livin’,” dirty jeans with a belt cinched tight and a baseball cap with a sequined skull on the front.
Ferronato said Gary is always easy to find because he keeps the same routine.
Gary starts his day with a trip to the donut shop for coffee, a donut and a baguette that he will snack on all day.
Then he walks to the ATM where he pulls out $20 in cash.
Gary, a Vietnam veteran, collects some Veteran’s Affairs benefits. He used to keep his money with him until he was mugged several years ago, he said.
He visits his brother, who lives in the city, but said he’s not allowed to stay.
Gary then makes his way back to his shopping center where he buys another baguette and settles in for the night behind an abandoned restaurant.
Ferronato and Nguyen see him often.
On this encounter, the HOPE team wants to find him a better place to sleep.
They are patient and friendly with him.
Gary rubs his tanned and tattooed forearms as he talks to Nguyen, telling her he doesn’t know how to find shelter.
Nguyen tells him they will help and she also promises him a cell phone —- a program started two years ago by the California Public Utilities Commission and the FCC.
He agrees to meet her the following Monday.
The project HOPE team doesn’t know if he’ll actually show.
That happens sometimes, Ferronato said.
“A lot of these guys maintain the status quo because it’s easy and they’re used to it,” he said. “It can be a lot of work to make a change.”
Before leaving, Nguyen and Ferronato check on his essentials: Is he getting enough to eat? How many pairs of shoes does he have? Does he have enough clean clothes?
Gary assures them he is fine and points out his shopping cart has eight pairs of pants and an extra pair of sneakers.
Nguyen squats down next to him and reminds him a final time to meet her so she can help him.
He responds with an over-exaggerated head nod.
“Be safe,” she calls as she walks to the police cruiser.
The HOPE team has encounters like this every time they go out, which is usually about once a month.
There are 40 names of homeless men on a list Ferronato keeps tucked in the sun visor of his police cruiser.
The men range in age from 28 to 67, and all are without a permanent place to call home.
They usually hang in the same places — shopping centers off Newland Avenue and Westminster Boulevard or the ABC Market at Bolsa Avenue and Magnolia Street, to name a couple.
All battle different demons.
Some struggle with addiction issues, while others battle mental health problems.
And some who call Westminster streets home were simply met with a series of unfortunate circumstances that ended with them living on the streets.
Ferronato and Nguyen try to help, no matter the story behind how a person became homeless.
They help direct the homeless to places to get a warm meal or clean clothes.
They help them apply for state and federal benefits and even help them secure medication, if needed.
The process is often slow, but Ferronato and Nguyen said they have seen many success stories.
There is the couple who performs karaoke for tips on the street.
Ferronato said they used to generate at least three complaints a day from residents.
The couple now lives in a minivan and has enough benefits to look forward to steady meals.
Although not ideal, it is better than making a home on the back porch of a local business at night, Ferronato said.
Ferronato also talks about the woman in her 30s who used to sleep in her car off Bolsa Avenue.
Project HOPE helped get her home to her family in Northern California.
There was also the man who didn’t know how to collect social security benefits and project HOPE helped him find the way.
Turns out, the government owed him four years in social security back pay, Ferronato said.
“For him, that is life-changing,” he said.
And changing lives is what the project aims to do.
“We try to make them comfortable and we try to get into their world,” Nguyen said. “We try to help them step by step.”