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Some police officers are harassing homeless people in an attempt to move them away from business districts, service agency leaders told Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon in a meeting arranged last week by City Council President Pro Tem Maryann Mahaffey.
At the root of the problem is a woeful lack of homeless facilities. There are an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 homeless people in the city, but only 1,100 beds for them. That means there are thousands of people left to fend for themselves on the streets, creating tension in areas trying to capitalize on the city's economic revival.
"There has been really a kind of aggressive approach by the police in their response to the business community to clean up the area," says Cheryl Johnson, executive director of the Coalition on Temporary Shelter in the Cass Corridor and one of the meetingattendees.
Napoleon says that the police department is not arresting homeless people, although homeless people are sometimes picked up and taken to shelters.
He acknowledged complaints about homeless people from businesses, but said the meeting was the first time he had heard complaints about harassment.
"Quite frankly, we get calls that homeless people are frightening folks and that we should move them out, but I tell them I can't arrest them because they are homeless," said Napoleon. "Until the law department says we have the authority to arrest people for panhandling, it does not rise to a level of criminality," he added.
About six weeks ago a police officer had a heavy equipment operator clear a field near Martin Luther King Boulevard and Third Avenue of bags and other items belonging to homeless people who were staying there, according to the heads of several emergency shelters. The possessions were dumped in a truck and not returned, according to emergency service providers.
"Many homeless are still reeling from that because they lost every thing they owned, their ID and other personal belongings," says Tyrone Chatman, assistant executive director of the Michigan Veterans Foundation, also in the Cass Corridor. The organization provides transitional housing to homeless veterans.
Chatman says that the police also threatened to arrest those sleeping in the field, though he does not know of anyone who has been jailed.
"I thought it was a good meeting. There was an honest exchange," said Mahaffey.
Suggestions for improving the situation include sensitivity training for police and businesses, creating more homeless shelters and permanent housing for the homeless. The group is to meet again next month.