(Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series exploring the worsening crisis of homelessness in Cleveland and Bradley County. Today's installment features an interview with Cleveland Chief of Police …
(Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series exploring the worsening crisis of homelessness in Cleveland and Bradley County. Today's installment features an interview with Cleveland Chief of Police Mark Gibson who explains how municipal law enforcement is handling the issue.)
Some people who see a homeless person on the street might find themselves feeling uneasy, and their first reaction might be to call the police. However, Mark Gibson, chief of the Cleveland Police Department, said that is usually not the best action to take.
“One thing I want the community to know is that being homeless is not a crime,” Gibson said. “I would certainly want people to report if they feel unsafe or see [a crime] taking place, but simply being homeless is not a crime.”
A police officer may respond to a call and talk to the person in question. The officer may even share information such as the location of the local homeless shelter. However, the person cannot be arrested unless the officer believes there is a legitimate reason.
Gibson said some calls have resulted in arrests, with people facing charges for public intoxication, drug possession and more. However, some of the complaints have been about homeless people simply sitting and minding their own business.
“Homelessness is, a lot of times, seen as a law enforcement issue,” in part because of those who are arrested, Gibson said. He added a growing sense of unease between the general public and those who are homeless has led to the CPD receiving more calls.
As the population of Cleveland grows, so does the number of homeless people. That means people are homeless and people who are not are crossing paths more often.
The CPD has received multiple calls and complaints from representatives of downtown businesses and users of the Cleveland/Bradley County Greenway, Gibson said. He expects the issue of the homeless frequenting certain areas downtown will continue to surface as groups like the Cleveland City Council discuss downtown revitalization.
Gibson noted Johnston Park, located off Inman Street downtown, has already been a point of discussion, as many believe the park is a haven for homeless people. However, he said it is also frequented by those who live in the Cleveland Summit Apartments, a low-income housing facility located nearby.
In April, the Cleveland Planning Office issued a building permit for Cleveland Court, a new public housing complex expected to be built off South Lee Highway, not far from Bradley Central High School. Residents of the Summit are expected to eventually move there.
Some people might assume this would reduce the number of homeless people in downtown Cleveland. However, Gibson pointed out the Cleveland Emergency Shelter and a number of organizations helping the homeless will still be located in and around downtown as well.
“That’s where their services are,” Gibson said. “They are always going to go where the help is.”
He added that is why the CPD typically receives more calls about homelessness than the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office does. Most people who are homeless tend to gather near the city center.
Matt Ryerson, president and CEO of the United Way of the Ocoee Region, said he has had the chance to talk to both CPD representatives and members of the downtown business community about the local homeless population.
While there are some law-abiding citizens genuinely in need of help, Ryerson said he understands why some of the tension between the homeless and business communities exists.
Part of that has to do with what Gibson referred to as “especially aggressive” panhandling. Some people have not taken kindly to being refused monetary help, and in one instance, a homeless man actually followed a woman to her car and forced his way into the passenger seat.
“I understand if you have a small business downtown and your secretary comes in crying because somebody said something to her, it’s going to be challenging to see the homeless as anything but [a nuisance],” Ryerson said.
Still, Ryerson hopes the community will not paint the entire homeless community with the same broad brush. Some are hard-working individuals who are genuinely in need of help.
That is why representatives of the United Way and several partnering organizations reconvened the Homeless Task Force of the United Way’s Housing Coalition.
Ryerson said that even if some who are homeless are displaying anti-social behavior, the community should still help by supporting the availability of resources like treatment for drug addiction and mental illness.
“We can’t arrest our way out of homelessess and mental health problems,” Gibson said. He added that drug addictions, which can lead some to rack up criminal charges, cannot be helped by law enforcement alone.
Ryerson said homelessness is a “very complicated” issue, but he believes Cleveland can do more to help the homeless, while also preserving what people like about downtown.
Gibson said part of the challenge will be convincing those who choose to support themselves through panhandling to begin working toward productive careers which benefit the community.
There is actually a city ordinance against panhandling, but Gibson noted many try to flout this rule by holding signs with messages like, “Homeless and hungry — pray for me.” Though the person in this scenario hopes for money, they are technically only asking for prayer.
“The ones who are panhandling are not usually the ones who are spending it on food or shelter,” Gibson said. “We’ll encounter people and offer them services, and they’ll make it clear they don’t want them.”
Corinne Freeman, executive director of The Caring Place, said she has heard stories of both people frustrated by panhandlers and homeless people who are frustrated they have had the cops called on them for simply existing in a public place.
She said the best approach would be to offer those who ask for help referrals to resources offered by charitable organizations helping the homeless — and to not call the police unless there is a genuine need.
Regardless of how one chooses to respond to a homeless person’s plea for help, many agree more needs to be done to help those without homes lead better lives.
“Homelessness is a growing issue that’s reaching a critical point,” Gibson said. “We’re aware of it and have been seeing it, but now the community’s noticing.”
(Next: A look at local organizations, and individuals, who are working to help the homeless in the Cleveland and Bradley County community.)
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