Cracking down on homelessness in Tempe parks with a helping hand

Posted at 3:11 PM, Dec 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-28 21:32:06-05

Tackling homelessness is no easy task — but, Tempe police are cracking down, while at the same time lending a helping hand.

In April, police tasked Officer Brian Ornelas with the Tempe Parks Police Unit. He’s currently the only officer on the unit.

Wednesday, ABC15 walked along with Officer Ornelas to see his approach first-hand.

Along a stretch of Pagago Park near the College and Curry entrance, it's hard to spot the problems at first.

"We had one (encampment) tucked in here that they just cleaned out. You can see where some of the litter is there,” Ornelas said.

The issue of homelessness is not only a Tempe issue, but also a national one. 

"It's not just substance abuse, it’s not just mental illness, hitting hard times. It could be a whole number of things,” Ornelas said.

Hidden away behind bushes and palms, people sometimes live there.

“This is why we get the calls for service, and we completely get it. This is out of control,” Ornelas said.

He took ABC15 crews through the encampment as workers contracted by the city cleaned it out. Individuals living there have already left and taken the belongings that they wanted to keep.

"It just get worse. It continues in and around here. And this accumulated in less than three or four weeks. Prior to that, I had already cleaned this area up,” Ornelas explained.

When he first comes across the homeless living in city parks, he gets to know them, learns their stories and their needs. He gives them time and checks back with them.

"As opposed to saying, 'Hey you need to leave right now,' — trying to be the tough guy. That's not how you approach people. That's not the human way,” Ornelas said.

There's nothing dignified about those conditions.

"It's miserable. I mean, any one of us, I don't think we could handle that too long,” Ornelas said.

But he sees the person and their dignity, working to get them housing first, then the services they need. He collaborates with the City of Tempe’s Homeless Outreach Program Effort (HOPE), and nonprofit groups Community Bridges and Circle the City.

"Compassion is a basic thing. We can all give that. It doesn't cost us anything,” Ornelas said. “Any one of us could find ourselves in this situation. Any one of us."

City of Tempe spokesperson Nikki Ripley says they want to end homelessness.

“That doesn’t mean that in the future no one will ever be homeless. That means we’re working toward a future where incidences of homelessness are brief, and are rare, and they happen one time for that individual,” Ripley said.

They’re working to collect data on Tempe’s homeless population.

“We want to know more about the size and scope of the issue we’re facing so that we can devise solutions that are right for Tempe,” Ripley said.

Since June, the public works department has gathered 36 tons of material and crews have dedicated 550 hours to clean-up.