Police: ‘Homelessness is not a crime’
The homeless are often easy to identify. They can be seen walking the street in worn-out clothes and shoes with everything they own on their backs, or sleeping overnight in an old car, or huddled in a doorway to keep warm.
But Winchester Police Chief Kevin Palmer wants other people to understand that making them feel uncomfortable is not an offense that requires intervention by law enforcement.
During the Winchester Board of Commissioners Tuesday afternoon, Sgt. Monty Corbett said Palmer wanted him to get across to city officials and the public that, although it is a problem here as it is in any town, “homelessness is not a crime.”
“Every night in this country, over 500,000 people are experiencing homelessness,” Corbett said.
More than half of them are in shelters, but more than a third are on the streets.
Corbett said the U.S. Supreme Court has said it is a violation of the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment to arrest and prosecute someone for sleeping outdoors.
“Arrest leads to further suffering, loss of liberty, exposure to violence and disease in jail and loss of property such as clothing, medication, bedding and personal effects, which they have very little of to begin with,” Corbett said. “We want to make sure that we’re treating our homeless population just as well as we treat anybody else that we interact with.”
Corbett said Winchester Police get many calls from residents about homeless people, including calls about them asking for money.
“They are allowed to do that,” he said,
That is, as long as they are in a public place, such as on a sidewalk, or have the permission of a private property owner and are not in the street impeding traffic or creating a safety hazard.
Police can take action if someone is on your property and won’t leave, or if they are committing an actual crime.
“If you can articulate suspicious activity and want the police to respond, that is appropriate,” however, just the fact that they’re homeless doesn’t make them a suspicious person.
Mayor Ed Burtner asked what the Police Department is doing to raise awareness about the issue of homelessness.
Corbett said the department has done some officer training on the issue in the past year, but he would like to see more training to allow officers know what resources are available in the community to help the homeless.
Debbie Fatkin, executive director of Clark County Community Services, happened to be in the audience and was asked by the mayor if she would like to sit in on the training, and she said she would.
Fatkin said the charity has created cards to hand out that provides information about where people in need, including the homeless, can find a bed for the night, or food, or gas to get them where they need to go, or other resources.
She commended the emergency dispatchers for doing a good job of letting her and her staff and volunteers know when their services are needed.
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