It’s frustrating working with the homeless. You can try to help as much as you want, but sometimes nothing seems to work. 

“A lot of times we want to help, but they don’t want to be helped,” Guillermo Vasquez said. “They’re not ready to change.”

Vasquez, a mental health counselor registered nurse (MHCRN), works with a special unit in the Pasadena Police Department, the Homeless Outreach-Psychiatric Evaluation (HOPE) team.

The PPD and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health started the HOPE team on Jan. 8, 2002 to better handle people experiencing homelessness and mental illness.

“Our goal with the HOPE team is to provide services for outreach to get people the resources they need,” said Chief of Police John Perez.

On a typical day, the six-person unit works with the homeless and mentally ill on the streets and in shelters, providing resources to help them. The team consists of three officers who are paired with either one of the two RNs or a social worker.

The team was created during a time where Pasadena was seeing an upward trend in the number of homeless in the city. The number has fluctuated in recent years and is now trending downward.

In the 2019 homeless count by the city, Pasadena recorded its second-lowest number of people living in cars or on the streets in the past decade with 542 people experiencing homelessness on a given night. The number dropped by 135 people, a 20 percent decrease, continuing a downward trend since 2011, when the number of homeless was the highest it’s been in a decade with 1,216 people recorded.

“There is a vast amount of required training that they have to do in regard to mental health,” said Perez. “Our HOPE team members are trained much like our crisis negotiation team members.”

The officers receive special training in crisis communications, violence threat risk, suicide-homicide bomber terrorist response and graduated from the state-sponsored Crisis Intervention Team Training Academies.

The Police Department plans to expand the team by adding a social worker and police officer.

Anybody Home?

Vasquez’s partner is Officer Donovan Jones, a veteran of the Pasadena Police Department with close to 30 years on the force. He’s been with the HOPE team for about two and a half years.

The two men patrol Pasadena in their white, unmarked Ford Crown Victoria responding to calls and visiting homeless encampments. They describe themselves as the frontline responders for this line of work. They’ve seen people in their worst conditions.

“It’s assumed we’re not the mental health police,” Vasquez told a Pasadena Weekly reporter during a recent ride-along. “We’re a crisis team [and] having an unmarked car is a softer approach. It’s supposed to be less threatening, less intimidating for the client, subject and the family. When black and whites start showing up somebody thinks they’re going to jail but we’re here to help.”

Another facet of their job is to partner with the Department of Public Works to offer resources to those living in homeless encampments before Public Works cleans out the area. One of the places they visit most often is the underpass off of New York Drive in Altadena.

“This has been a popular spot for many, many years,” said Vasquez. “When one of the homeless people who inhabit this location leaves, word gets out and another person comes in.”

The encampment is popular because of its location. It’s relatively private as the residents of the camp repel down from the bridge since scaling the 25-foot embankment is a bit difficult. The bridge also offers protection from the elements. Jones tries to make contact with anyone living there but receives no response. Since the embankment is too steep for the team to climb up, they move on.

Vasquez describes the people who live there as “crafty.” The residents use whatever they have to make living outdoors as comfortable as possible. From pictures on the wall to generators and beds, Vasquez and Jones have seen everything.

“He had a twin-sized bed with a headboard and footboard,” Jones said about one case in the past. “He had like a 30-inch flat-screen TV, a full-on generator from Harbor Freight Tools and he had a barbecue grill … All of this but the barbecue grill was in a tent.”

Before the team leaves the underpass, Jones leaves a notice warning the homeless about the imminent clean up. They both know it will be a short time before they come back and repeat the whole process.

“We’ve had several success stories, but they’re far and few in between, said Vasquez. “I could count on one hand the number of people that we were able to successfully get into permanent housing… It is frustrating at times knowing that your outreach attempts didn’t work on a certain day, but you just have to keep thinking that eventually, they will work at some point.” 

‘Postcard of a Homeless Person’

One of the people resisting help is their chronic client, Amanda Ross. Jones and Vasquez join their colleagues Officer Miguel Armendariz and MHCRN Beatriz Torres before going to Ross’ favorite spot to panhandle. Armendariz says that he has been working with Ross for four years. 

She lays passed out and laid back on her wheelchair at the corner of Lake Avenue and Corson Street, right off the exit of the Foothill (210) Freeway. Armendariz says Ross never moves from the corner. To her right are empty pizza boxes and bags of food given to her from passersby. She’s covered head to toe in blankets. She wreaks from what the officers presume is her urine and feces. Armendariz walks up to her finding a bag of meth and a pipe sitting on her lap.

“I always tell my partner we’re good cop, bad cop,” said Armendariz. “We try to do outreach but at the same time, I’m not going to dismiss criminal activity in front of my face. They’re (the nurses and social workers) the nice people.”

Armendariz writes up a ticket for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia as Torres and Vasquez evaluate Ross. They put on their surgical gloves before checking the wounds on Ross’ legs. Her feet and ankles are red and swollen prompting the two nurses to recommend she go to a hospital. She refuses.

“Why is it that you are so hesitant to get off the street?” Vasquez, sounding similar to a disappointed parent, asks Ross. “What’s holding you back?”

Ross responds in a raspy and barely audible tone. She says that she doesn’t know how to be inside, she’s been outside for so long she doesn’t feel comfortable.

Torres and Vasquez try to convince her to go to a hospital, saying that they will give her a ride there and will provide resources; she still refuses.

“If you’re having a problem with drugs, I mean there are drug treatment programs,” Vasquez said. “Do you have a problem with drugs?”

“No,” Ross said. Vasquez walks away in frustration as Torres continues to talk to her.

Shortly afterward, Torres comforts Ross and she cries into the RN’s shoulder. The team becomes slightly optimistic, hoping she will finally ask for help — she doesn’t.

Help from passersby enables Ross to continue living this lifestyle.

“To your passing motorist, this is a woman [who is] destitute, she’s desperate,” said Vasquez. “This is a postcard of a homeless person right here. But they don’t know the backstory, the underlying issue. They don’t know all the attempts that have been made.”

The team believes Ross will not accept help until her health deteriorates to the point that she is rushed to a hospital, or worse.

“I don’t know how many heartbeats she has left in her,” said Vasquez. “One of these days she’s going to be one of our DOAs.”

“There’s not a whole lot you can do, you try to help the person before they get to that point,” said Jones. “I don’t want to see anybody lose their life. If I know that I’ve helped and tried and they refuse, there’s not much more I can do; it’s an unfortunate thing. I try to have a little buffer so it doesn’t affect me so much.”