Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fayetteville NC police officer keeps eye on the homeless www.privateofficer.com

Fayetteville NC Feb 28 2012 There's a secret underneath the Ann Street bridge.

Officer Stacy Sanders, the Fayetteville's homeless project officer, carefully climbs down a steep embankment, her boots kicking up puffs of loose red dirt. She looks to the abutment and sees enough pillows, blankets, boxes and odds and ends on both banks of Cross Creek to fill a moving truck.

In recent months, a tenant has moved his possessions into the area.

"He has a place over here," Sanders said, gesturing to a wooded area east of the bridge. "This is where he stores his stuff. ... He's a hoarder."

She follows a meandering path through the woods to a rudimentary camp, trying to contact its owner to deliver an eviction warning, but nobody is home on this recent weekday.

Sanders, an 11-year veteran of the Police Department, is tasked with monitoring hundreds of homeless city residents. A count last month found about 1,600 people who qualify as homeless in Cumberland County, about 1,300 of whom are on the streets every night.

She didn't necessarily start the job to help the homeless. Sanders previously worked for about 2 1/2years as an undercover officer, buying drugs and working on prostitution stings. But as a single mother, she wanted to get into something different with more steady hours, she said.

"I was looking for a job that was not as dangerous," Sanders said. "Coming from undercover work, it's pretty high-risk there."

She applied to become the next homeless project officer and got the job about eight years ago, but things haven't always panned out the way she's thought. Now, instead of buying drugs, she's dealing with people using drugs and alcohol, many of whom have mental disorders.

Part of her job is keeping a database to track them, Sanders said. Police need to know where homeless people on probation and parole, as well as the sex offenders, are staying, she said.

Sanders also keeps track of their families, when possible, in case they need to be contacted in an emergency.

But her job is not limited to gathering information. She also helps collect and distribute garbage-bag loads of socks and blankets from churches and charities. She gathers boxes of coffee mugs for distribution and passes out hygiene kits.

Sanders helps the homeless get into shelters, and helps them get documents like identification cards and birth certificates. She tries to help drug addicts and alcoholics onto the path of sobriety, and whenever she can put people in touch with family, she does, hoping to help get them off the streets.

Most days, she starts early in the morning, responding to complaints about homeless people trespassing or causing problems. The homeless tend to congregate under bridges and near wood lines. Some have recently been camping out behind buildings in the area of Cross Creek Mall, she said.

Squatters like to take up residence in vacant homes, tearing down boards and using the buildings to get drunk and high, or to conduct prostitution, Sanders said.

Sanders stopped at one such residence, at 601 Link St., on a recent afternoon. The property had been boarded up, but the plywood has been pulled from the rear doors and windows.

"They board it up, it gets torn down," Sanders said. "So that house probably should actually just be burned down."

Inside, mounds of rubbish - rags, blankets, cigarette butts, bottles of cheap wine - are piled on the floor. The stench of urine lingers in the air.

Nobody was home at the time. The homeless often leave their living quarters during the day to wander the streets, sometimes looking for work or going to the library, sometimes panhandling.

The panhandlers, especially, can be aggressive when they see Sanders pulling up, she said.

"They've been cited so many times, and it's frustrating for them when we get out and try to tell them they can't be there," Sanders said. "They feel like they can be there and they keep doing it over and over again."

Working to help a group that either can't or won't accept the help being offered can be frustrating, too, she said. Usually for someone to escape homelessness, there has to be a breaking point, the rock bottom to instill the determination to get out, she said.

Sometimes, the work pays off. Sanders remembers a man who frequented Ramsey Street who used to be homeless and using drugs on the streets. Now, he's a preacher with a family who displays "Jesus Loves You" signs, she said.

"You do have life-changing events that happen," Sanders said. "When they get ready to change their lives and when it does happen, I like to be there. We have had a lot of success stories, believe it or not. We just keep on them."


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