The BPD Street Outreach Team

The BPD would like to thank the Boston Herald and O'Ryan Johnson for telling the story of our Street Outreach Team.

BPD launches patrol to help Boston’s homeless
‘Street’ cops

By O’Ryan Johnson | Monday, November 2, 2009 | | Local Coverage

The Boston Police Department’s recently formed Street Outreach Team is a two-person, walking, talking ounce of prevention aimed at helping the homeless and easing the load on city services that help them.

Officers Alexander Zahlaway and Michelle Maffeo volunteered for the duty a year ago and now spend hours of their shift listening to the homeless, their stories, their problems, their needs and their complaints, with the goal of keeping them warm, safe, fed and out of trouble.

While it’s not against the law to be homeless, the population tends to spend more time in jail and in court than others, police said. Mental illness and drug abuse lead to frequent arrests, which create an ingrained distrust of the police department.

“A lot of it is a revolving door,” Zahlaway said. “You see the same people over and over again. This is trying to stop that cycle.”

An arrest is also a costly use of manpower and resources.

Even for a simple trespassing arrest, the taxpayer is footing the bill for the police, bailiffs, court clerks, prosecutors and public defenders, who are all involved in each case.

And an arrest doesn’t solve the root problem, but police cannot ignore the law, anymore than a business owner can ignore someone passed out at the entrance to their shop, officials said.

Zahlaway and Maffeo’s job is to cut this Gordian knot by reaching out, talking to the person in order to get the help they need from agencies.

“Communication. Coordination. Cooperation,” Zahlaway said, sitting in the passenger seat of their unmarked cruiser driven Friday evening by Maffeo. “This is all we do.”

Maffeo smiles and holds up four fingers.

“That’s four,” she said. “I’m keeping count. He’s said it four times now.”

Zahlaway laughs, but said the three Cs are both their measure of success and the mile markers along its path. His method is quickly put to the test.

In a walking tour of the Jimmy Kelly Bridge near the on-ramps to Interstates 90 and 93, the team spots two homeless men and one woman. The woman, upset by a camera’s clicking, begins to cry. After she’s calmed down, she tells the officers she’s off her medication and has been tossed from a homeless shelter. The cops spend the next 30 to 40 minutes talking with her and the shelter by phone. They eventually call EMS so she can be hospitalized and get her medication.

Cops working a district who jump from one emergency call to the next may encounter the homeless, but don’t have the time to spend with them to make sure they get the services they need. Zahlaway and Maffeo do.

“I just like to be out there, to help somebody with mental health issues and make a diffrence,” Maffeo said.

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Photo by Christopher Evans