Lincoln compassionate toward homeless

PhotoBrian Gray (left) and Todd “Tiny” Rose (right) sit on the corner of 14th and ‘O’ to panhandle during the weekend

Story and photo by Johnnie Adcox, NewsNetNebraska

Most people ignore him, and his cardboard sign. But if you want to give a donation, or to just have a conversation, that’s just fine with him.

Todd “Tiny” Rose has been homeless for five years after losing his job of 20 years at a meat processing plant due to an injury. He lived at the People’s City Mission for a year, which he said is the longest a person is allowed to stay.

Rose then began sleeping on downtown sidewalks, sometimes waking up with inches of snow piling up on his sleeping bag. That’s when he said an officer with the Lincoln Police Department stepped in to help him.

Rose said the officer took him to the Occupy Lincoln campsite and gave him a tent. Rose had a good time there and became camp director. He said he was in charge of donations and keeping the peace.

“I think he felt obligated because I had nowhere else to go.”

When the Occupy Lincoln campsite had to be shut down for the renovation of Centennial Mall, Rose said the same officer helped him again.

He said the officer arranged for Rose to camp out in a willing person’s backyard for a month. Rose then met a new friend who lets him stay in his garage at night. He is also allowed to come inside to clean up and watch an occasional movie. Rose still comes downtown on the weekends to panhandle at the corner of 13th and ‘O’ Street.

“I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs and I pick up my trash. I don’t cause problems, so the police treat me with respect.”

And who is this officer? It’s a mystery that may never be solved.

Capt. Bob Kawamoto of LPD’s Center Team said he doesn’t know either, but he isn’t surprised at all.

“I know lots of examples of where officers have gone out of their way to help homeless people. It’s kind of the way that the officers downtown have dealt with transients and homeless people for years. We’ve had officers sitting on the board at Matt Talbot Kitchen for years. We’ve had officers who have been on bike patrol for years that deal with the homeless pretty regularly. It’s just the way Lincoln is.”

Lincoln’s laws that affect the homeless are relaxed compared to many other cities. Berkeley, Calif., residents will vote in the November election on a law that would ban anyone from sitting on a sidewalk. Las Vegas, Philadelphia and New York City have laws banning people from feeding the homeless. Those laws don’t exist in Lincoln. In fact, a ban on panhandling was lifted in 2004.

According to the Lincoln Homeless Coalition the number of unsheltered homeless persons has nearly doubled from 68 in 2008 to 125 in 2012. A count of Lincoln’s homeless is done every year in late January. Police, Matt Talbot employees and shelter employees are among those who do the count, making sure not to double-count anyone.

These include the people you see panhandling downtown and in front of stores and sleeping on sidewalks.

The police have to deal with these people every day. And many of the homeless say the police treat them with dignity and respect.

Sgt. John Backer of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police agreed.

“Just because they’re homeless doesn’t give us the right to treat them any different.”

Backer said he is familiar with many of the homeless people who are in the downtown area, but doesn’t have too many problems with them. He said there is no difference between a college student napping on a lawn or bench on campus and a homeless person who is doing the same.

“If they’re not causing issues or breaking the law, there really isn’t a reason to contact them.”

But when someone is causing problems or breaking laws on campus, whether homeless or not, UNL Police institute what they call a ban and bar process. This process begins with a written notice. If the person comes back and causes more problems, they are banned and barred from the campus. If the banned individual comes back, they will be arrested for trespassing.

Not every police officer in Lincoln is as compassionate toward the homeless. Sarah Sunderman of Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach said some younger officers have been known to give them a hard time until a senior officer “corrects them.”

“I have had a very good response from the LPD in the seven years I’ve been doing this. They are very respectful and very helpful with the homeless population in town.”

Brian Gray is a friend of Rose’s and has a similar story. He said if you give the police reasons to bother you, they will, especially if you drink in public a lot.

“Some of them even have a sense of humor and give you a little static, which is a good thing.”

Gray said most of the officers he meets look out for homeless people. Rose and Gray said people who are out drinking at the bars often harass them and kick their cardboard signs. They said the police don’t tolerate that type of behavior by the general public.

Gray said, “The LPD has a lot of good officers that work for them.”