The Houston Police Department’s mental health division works out of the second floor of the city’s first Center for Sobriety, which provides assistance and monitoring for people under the influence of alcohol. It’s a fitting location for the unique department, which was formed in 2007 and has centered itself around partnerships with community organizations and mental health case workers to develop a more sensitive, multi-pronged approach for dealing with people with mental illnesses.
Sgt. Steve Wick heads up a small unit inside this department called the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT for short), which is made up of four officers, one sergeant and three mental health case workers. In addition to responding to complaints associated with homelessness, like public intoxication or loitering, this police unit works proactively to get those people off the streets of downtown Houston — preventing complaints from happening in the first place.
This approach to homelessness is not unique to Houston. Departments in Cambridge, Mass. and Colorado Springs, Colo. amongst others, have started units with similar strategies. Sgt. Wick spent a week with the Colorado Springs department learning about their program before starting HOT in Houston.
It’s hard to tell if this approach has lead to a significant decrease in complaints associated with the homeless, but the impact on the street population is evident. According to Wick, HOT has helped place more than 400 people in temporary or permanent housing since 2011.