Ryan DeBaeke deftly navigated his all-terrain utility vehicle over cracked, dry soil and blackberry brambles Monday afternoon before stopping at a lone blue tent in a vacant field near the Petaluma River.
His partner, Zilverio Rivera, also a member of the Petaluma Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Services Team, talked with the two men inside the tent, offering links to social services and warning of an impending cleanup.
DeBaeke, a Petaluma native who lobbied for the creation of a role dedicated to addressing issues with the city’s homeless population, gestured to the expansive empty riverbanks nearby. When he first started patrolling in January 2016, the river was teeming with homeless encampments, often piled high with hazardous waste and trash.
“It’s kind of an ongoing battle with keeping those places small,” he said, adding that he initially documented 34 large-scale camps across the city. “We’ve definitely gotten a handle on it to a point where it’s very manageable.”
In the past 17 months, the team has hauled away 90 tons of garbage, and the two utility task vehicles (UTVs) acquired by the agency will broaden that effort, he said. The rugged, off-road vehicles were procured with funds from CalRecycle and a grant provided by the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, he said.
When the rainy season hits, fields such as the ones DeBaeke patrolled Monday will become impassable except by those vehicles, he said. In a few weeks, the team will also receive a custom-made boat to patrol the river.
“We can go more places, and these UTVs allow us to go in and remove garbage along the banks and tracks,” he said.
The two full-time officers work closely with the city’s principal homeless services provider, Committee on the Shelterless, which operates the Mary Isaak Center shelter and several employment and housing programs.
Mike Johnson, the nonprofit’s CEO, said the partnership has reduced the strain on the city’s public safety network and health care providers. Last year, 31 people completed a Sober Circle program to help “serial inebriates” battling substance abuse find a path to treatment and housing, Johnson said. In 2016, police calls for services related to those serial inebriates dropped 73 percent, he said.
“I can’t say enough about the partnership,” he said.
DeBaeke and Rivera work hard to build relationships with the transient population, checking in on those who refuse services and providing garbage bags to help with cleanups.
“It’s exactly the right way to do it,” Johnson said. “To get people to engage, you have to build trust and a connection. The relationship between people is not cop-to-homeless person, it’s person-to-person. That will eventually lead them the engage and take advantage of what you’re offering.”
DeBaeke’s position was funded after re-purposing a vacant post, but Rivera’s salary is funded through a two-year $500,000 CalRecycle grant set to expire in June.
If the grant is not renewed, the cash-strapped city will be forced to evaluate the merits of funding the position from its own budget. City Councilman Dave King said decision makers will confront the issue in coming months.
“We’re in tough shape in terms of the general fund budget going forward,” he said. “It’s certainly worthwhile from what I’ve heard … It’s certainly very effective. We’ll see what’s going on with the grant and what options we would have. Obviously, if we put money into that, we would have to examine where it’s coming from.”