Two police officers arrive at a homeless health services event in MacArthur Park in their police car on a cold rainy Friday morning. Nonprofits and government agencies have gathered in the park to offer their services to homeless individuals near downtown Los Angeles.
The eyes of the service providers and homeless clients are fixed on the police officers. The two officers, Joe Cirrito and John Ashpaugh, dressed in uniform, along with city attorney Steve Houchin, who wears a suit along with a standard issue police jacket, emerge from the police car.
But they are not here to arrest. They are here to help.
Their job is to connect the homeless citizens in their jurisdiction to the services offered every other Friday at MacArthur Park.
Immediately after they arrive, Cirrito walks up to an employee of the nonprofit that organized the event, St. Johns Well Child and Family Center, and asks if a homeless man he met a few days ago had come to the event. Ashpaugh sees another homeless man he recognizes and gives him a fist bump and comments on how glad he is that the man came to the event. Soon, a small group of homeless individuals and service providers have formed around the officers and the attorney.
This moment displays exactly what these officers want to accomplish through their program, Project HOPE.
Project HOPE, headquartered at the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Olympic Division, stands for Homeless Outreach and Partnership Endeavor. Started nine months ago by Cirrito and Houchin, Project HOPE now assigns two senior lead officers to be the community liaisons to the homeless population in the Olympic Division’s jurisdiction.
Cirrito has been on the force for 12 years and Ashpaugh for 21 years. They have both been at the Olympic Division since 2009. Houchin has been a deputy city attorney with the division for a year and a half.
Cirrito, Ashpaugh and Houchin seek to develop relationships with the homeless individuals within their community with the hope of eventually bringing them off the streets.
At the homeless health services day, Luisana Cortez, Wellness Care Coordinator at St. Johns Well Child and Family Center, reflects on her job since working with Project HOPE and Officers Cirrito and Ashpaugh. Cortez was one of the first service providers to join Project HOPE at its inception. Since then, Cortez has developed a new level of trust with her clients.
“My clients watch my interaction with the officers and are more open about discussing [with me] what’s going on with them,” Cortez says.
She also has noticed that more organizations have started working collaboratively with the LAPD, and she believes the change is a result of newfound trust.
“If [you] don’t take time investing in people, they don’t trust [you],” she says. “You need to involve the community [and] invest in people.”
That day, through Project HOPE, representatives from the Department of Mental Health (DMH) and St. John’s meet for the first time. DMH has recently begun partnering with the LAPD. A group of the representatives reflect on their own experiences with Officers Cirrito and Ashpaugh.
“It’s great working with them,” one employee says. “[They] break down the stigma of police officers and homelessness. They are so compassionate, so different.”
Another employee points out that the two officers “know how to talk and treat people in a way that is not an abuse of power.”
The DMH employees still remark on their distaste for certain policies enforced by law enforcement, such as the newly amended Los Angeles Municipal Code 56.11, which makes it illegal to have a certain amount of personal belongings in public areas, including sidewalks. The enforcement of this law falls on police officers and therefore results in tension between law enforcement officers and advocates for the homeless.
There are two sides of the argument: the case for public health and safety and the case for individual rights. While these sides appear to be polarized, their discord seems to disappear when they are discussing the work Project HOPE does.
Representatives from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) arrive at the event a little while later. Matthew Tenchavez, part of the LASHA emergency response team, has been working with Project HOPE since its beginning. Tenchavez became involved after Officer Cirrito contacted LASHA looking for more information about services available to individuals living on the streets.
Tenchavez was assigned to partner with Project HOPE once a week. He has found that he now has more knowledge about service providers and what law enforcement has the responsibility to do in regards to homelessness.
“[Officers Cirrito and Ashpaugh] motivate me,” Tenchavez says. “I don’t want to disappoint them. They have done such good things … They have such a good heart, so much integrity.”
Based on his experience working with officers Cirrito and Ashpaugh, Tenchavez hopes to apply for the police academy and become a police officer himself.
Nationally, criticism of police forces has caused public perception of police officers to change. From a 2014 study published in Police Quarterly, a new analytical tool revealed that survey respondents had less than satisfactory attitudes toward law enforcement. The study broke up public perception into general support and local support. Both general support and local support measurements were below the acceptable threshold. But through Project HOPE, in one area of Los Angeles, Cirrito and Ashpaugh aim to change perceptions.
Cirrito notices that the LASHA representatives have arrived, and approaches Tenchavez about registering a woman he knows in the Coordinated Entry System (CES). CES is a software program used to assess and evaluate a homeless individual’s situation, and put them on a succinct waiting list for permanent housing. Tenchavez and his partner agree. The team sets out to begin their direct outreach to homeless citizens that day.
After leaving MacArthur Park, the officers drive the police car east through Koreatown and make their first stop near a corner marked with two tents: a big green one and a small blue one. As the team gets out of the car, a concerned young woman stops and asks if everything is okay. Houchin, who receives this question frequently, calmly explains Project HOPE to her. Clearly relieved, she puts her headphones back on her ears and walks off.
Cirrito and Ashpaugh have already begun to walk up to the corner. They offer a greeting to the residents of the tents. Diana, the woman Cirrito had asked Tenchavez about, steps out of the green tent. She greets Cirrito and Ashpaugh, and introduces herself to Houchin.
Diana has known Officer Cirrito for six years, long before Project HOPE began. He has been a constant presence in her life, and she has come to trust his judgement and insight. Recently, she approached Cirrito and asked about finding permanent housing, explaining that she is pregnant and also trying to regain custody of her son. Once Tenchavez and his partner arrive, Diana sits with them in their car and fills out the paperwork for the CES.
At the end of the day, the team reflects on Project HOPE and the big picture. They do not know where the program is going. They want it to continue and to grow, but ultimately it is out of their control.
As Ashpaugh puts it, “All we can do is our best job each day.”
“I believe [Project HOPE] can be run in other divisions,” Cirrito says. “It will work best with a decentralized model. Each division needs to make their own plan based off of their homeless.” A few months ago, the Hollywood division created its own HOPE program that is currently operating successfully.
Cirrito dreams of having open lines of communication among everyone involved in addressing homelessness. Much like what occurred organically at the homeless health services day, Cirrito hopes to formalize an open table discussion with every stakeholder present.
Houchin describes his vision for the future: “The uniform will be a symbol of help coming, and the LAPD can become a part of the solution.”
“We all want to solve this problem so let’s try to bring resources together,” Cirrito says. “We are not out there to criminalize homelessness.”
Maddie Keating recently earned a Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management degree at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this article while taking the Media for Policy Change course at Price.