One of the most significant developments in policing is the addition of the social services type of work that has become ingrained in what police officers do every day in their communities. As more of this work has become necessary in recent years due to the growing awareness of and focus on crises such as opioids, mental health and homelessness, more specialized training and roles have been made available to officers across the country, and specialized units have been built into police departments. Among the specialized services units at APD is the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), which began in 2018.
HOT consists of an APD patrol officer, the Jail Diversion Program (JDP) clinician, a health inspector, a firefighter/EMT and staff from the Somerville Homeless Coalition outreach team. For the past 18 months, the team has also been a member of the Cambridge Multi-Disciplinary Outreach Team (MDOT), which includes staff from area homeless shelters and outreach groups of Cambridge, Somerville and Arlington. The group meets once per week to discuss at-risk homeless individuals or families, services and new happenings. Each representative then returns to their home community to conduct outreach with homeless individuals by visiting common gathering or sheltering areas. This outreach can take the form of offering available housing or space in shelters, bringing often-needed supplies like water, socks, coats, batteries and more, or working with a social worker to assist at-risk individuals with the necessary processes to receive certain benefits.
Through working with MDOT, we have been able to create critical partnerships with shelter staff and agencies in the area that allow us to offer the resources that we do. In 2018, APD was awarded a Rapid Re-Housing grant from the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. The grant allows the HOT to quickly locate and move homeless individuals to housing, as well as fund rent for one year for individuals living in the Mugar Woods area. Together with our partners, we have found permanent housing for seven individuals from the Mugar Woods area. The HOT also organized a Mugar Woods cleanup event last year and has worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to help educate Arlington’s homeless population on staying safe.
Officer Joe Canniff, the officer on the HOT, is an excellent resource for our homeless community members. He has developed positive relationships with many of those in our homeless community and does an excellent job conducting outreach and doing whatever he can to assist. He knows their unique conditions and situations which allows him to bring the supplies they need the most and offer them whichever services may be most beneficial. Our homeless individuals will also contact Officer Canniff regarding any problems or illegal activity in the area, which allows APD to continue to ensure that those in our homeless areas are safe and have what they need.
APD has also been a part of the town’s continued work to help the homeless through collaboration with the town’s Homelessness Task Force. Chaired by Christine Bongiorno, Health and Human Services director, the group of residents and town representatives works to determine steps the town can take to support the homeless population while ensuring the health and safety of the community. Through the relationships we are able to build with our more vulnerable community members with the work of teams like the HOT, we want them to know that we are not there to get them in trouble or take away their living area. We care about their wellbeing and want them to be able to live in a clean, safe area. With small steps, like bringing water or needed clothing items, we hope to be able to build trust with those residents that will allow us to help them further by finding housing, substance use resources, mental health resources, assistance with benefits or whatever other resources we can provide that can help each resident to eventually be on the path to a better quality of life.