By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia
Jennifer Cimini lives on the streets of the Northwest Valley.
She battled with drug addiction for more than a decade, and was charged with felony credit card fraud, landing her in prison for five years.
Ms. Cimini, 33, has since been homeless, struggling to get back on her feet.
But hope arrived in an unlikely turn of events — she was recently given a ticket for trespassing for sleeping behind a dumpster near Arrowhead Towne Center.
The police officer invited her to a homeless outreach event, Feb. 22, in Peoria, within walking distance of where she was ticketed. She attended, met with a number of service organizations and received resources to improve her situation.
The event was part of a new homeless outreach and education program created by the Peoria Police Department to divert the homeless to needed services in hopes of solving the root of the problem, rather than simply arresting them.
Ms. Cimini says she walked away from the event with motivation to improve her life.
“I am trying to stay clean and not be around people that could get me in trouble,” she said. “Now that I have found resources, I have to reach out and work on getting my mental health improved.”
On any given night in Maricopa County, more than 5,000 people experience homelessness, according to the 2015 Point-In-Time Count, in which more than 300 volunteers counted and surveyed the homeless staying in shelters and sleeping on the street on Feb. 24, 2015.
The population living on the streets in Peoria was 30, according to the count.
Department spokesman Brandon Sheffert said the homeless outreach program and mission began Feb. 2016 due to an increase in homeless population and an increase in citizen concerns.
Nearly 200 arrests in Peoria over the past year involved transients, many of those repeat offenders.
Mr. Sheffert said the homeless population accounts for an amount of nuisance and low-level crime in the city, including arrests for trespassing, shoplifting, theft and other property-related crimes.
“These crimes not only impact the victims of the crimes but it also takes officers off the street where they could be concentrating on other efforts,” he said. “The arrests are not a high number of our total arrests but the time spent and the great citizen concern makes this an important mission to our department.”
Since the program began, officers reached out to 181 homeless individuals with offers of assistance, many living under the Loop 101 bridge and in other washes throughout the city. Deputy Chief Benny Pina said 11 were transported for involuntary psychiatric treatment and 20 agreed to voluntary psychiatric or rehabilitation treatment.
“This was actually quite an accomplishment for us, for officers to go down and convince people to seek treatment,” Mr. Pina said. “We did very little enforcement and offered social and medical services, including mental health intervention and substance abuse intervention.”
After a year of offering assistance, the police department has begun enforcing laws broken by members of the homeless community, and begun cleaning up areas where transients have created urban camps that have been home to litter, blight and illegal activity.
Mr. Pina said that individuals with charges against them will be arrested if they do not seek shelter.
“The other part of this program is that at some point there has to be accountability for numerous bad acts,” Mr. Pina said. “We have accumulated information on each of our (homeless) contacts especially when there has been violations of the law. And so far, we have been working with our prosecutors and city courts to identify repeat offenders that would benefit from an enhanced punishment program to hold them accountable because they have clearly ignored our offers for voluntary assistance.”
On a single night in 2016, 549,928 people experiencing homelessness in the United States. A majority, 68 percent, was staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens, and 32 percent were in unsheltered locations.
•More than one-fifth of people experiencing homelessness were children (22 percent), 69 percent were older than 24, and 9 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24.
•Between 2015 and 2016, the number of people experiencing homelessness declined by t3 percent. Declines were composed entirely of people staying in sheltered locations (which declined by 5 percent). Homelessness increased among people staying in unsheltered locations (by 2 percent).
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development