“How about going to a shelter? Would you like to be taken to the hospital?”
In Los Angeles Koreatown, on 7th Street in the morning, there are six tents installed by the homeless. Six police officers are “investigating” the area, but they seem more interested in convincing the homeless rather than enforcing a law on them.
“I saw you on Hoover Street last week,” one officer said. “When did you move here?”
However, a completely different scene was taking place on the other corner of the street. An officer quickly arrested a homeless man. It was because the man has already been reported for allegedly committing a crime.
Convincing and enforcing are two primary duties for the Los Angeles Police Department’s recently launched Homeless Outreach Unit. Starting in the Valley since last May, the Homeless Outreach Unit has now expanded to West, Central and South L.A. From 10 to 12 officers are allocated for each area. Their sole duty within the unit is to monitor the city’s homeless people.
The Homeless Outreach Unit was created to spearhead the city’s efforts to curtail to rapidly increasing homeless population.
Hyuk-jin Kwon, who is part of the outreach unit in West L.A., is the only ethnic Korean officer in the program.
“In the past, the police dealt with homeless people by strictly enforcing the law on them,” said Kwon. “But now, the strategy has changed to compassion and empathy. The priority is to help the homeless.”
The role of the outreach unit varies. “One of the homeless men I met on Hoover Street last week was from another state. He has been out of touch with his family for months, so I helped him get back in touch with them and sent him back home immediately. He had no money to make his way back, so I purchased the bus ticket for him,” said Kwon.
The Homeless Outreach Unit is under the umbrella of the “HOPE (Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement)” program, which was designed by the city government. The ultimate goal is to provide solutions to the city’s homeless population, many of whom are suffering mental disorder, drug addiction and sanitary problems.
That being said, as necessary as compassion and empathy may be, there is no exception to those who violate the law. Violation of the law will result in immediate arrest. Also, installing a tent on the street during any time between 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. is strictly banned unless the weather conditions are extreme.
“It’s because criminal acts such as prostitution and drug consumption could occur inside the tents,” Kwon added.
The West L.A. unit is apparently the busiest among the four teams. According to Kwon, Koreatown is one of the three areas with the highest number of homeless people aside from the skid row in Downtown. The other two areas are Hollywood and Santa Monica.
The Homeless Outreach Unit is already reaping benefits. Since the unit was launched, about 50 homeless people have been relocated to shelters. At current pace, it is expected that more than 400 homeless will be in shelters by the end of the year.
However, there are critics who oppose the idea of providing care for the homeless. The basis of their opposition is that, without securing enough facilities to look after the homeless, the problem will only repeat itself. That is one of the reasons why the city government has been pushing for a bill that will provide itself with a budget to construct 10,000-unit housing facilities for the homeless.
The Homeless Outreach Unit also directly takes calls from the city’s residents who run into problems with the homeless on the streets.
“Anyone who is having a problem with a homeless person can make a call to the police department and our team will report to the scene immediately,” said Kwon. “But it is important for the residents to try to help and understand the homeless rather than trying to push them out.”
By Koo Hyun Chung