By Donna Furey | LB Indy
Police Corporal Jason Farris, a community outreach officer assigned Laguna Beach’s homeless population as his beat, was recognized as a Top Cop in an on-field ceremony at Angel Stadium last month.
Law enforcement officials from 10 other agencies also received accolades from the Angels organization, all nominated by their own employee associations.
Since the community outreach position was established in 2008 to respond to community concerns over the homeless population, Farris’s duties have broadened beyond the traditional field patrol regimen. They now include enlisting various social service agencies for assistance in finding short and long-term shelters and services for people living on the street. To be sure, Farris continues his routine patrol duties as well, which includes citing people for unlawful behavior.
In addition to keeping tabs on the homeless census, the community outreach officer is in demand as a speaker at local organizations such as the Exchange Club and as a mentor to other law enforcement agencies. And some homeless advocates praise Farris’ approach, though that opinion is not unanimous.
“I have been contacted by most of the cities in the county in one way or another with varying questions about homeless issues,” Farris said by email, adding that he invites other officers to call him, day or night with their questions. He’s also helped establish an informal monthly meeting where officers that work with the homeless meet and discuss current trends and laws pertaining to quality of life issues.
Though he has been approached about consulting on the topic, Farris would rather work directly with officers, imparting what he has learned and allowing each city to devise their own program.
Such positions exist because many cities are struggling to balance social values and economic interests, which can divide communities. Another tourist mecca, Honolulu, has experienced a surge in its homeless population, up 32 percent over the past five years. The explosion has prompted a police crackdown, sounded alarms among civic leaders that aggressive panhandlers are scaring off tourists, and set off an anguished debate on how to deal with the destitute, the New York Times reported on June 22. “It’s time to declare a war on homelessness, which is evolving into a crisis in Honolulu,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell, a Democrat, wrote in an essay published last month. “We cannot let homelessness ruin our economy and take over our city,” he said.
Farris joined the department as a dispatcher in 2002, worked as a reserve police officer for a year before getting hired fulltime in 2004, said Capt. Jason Kravetz. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a double major in Spanish from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
Congregational Church Pastor B.J. Beu recalls seeking Farris’ help in retrieving the belongings of a parishioner who had been jailed. “Farris is pretty respected in the homeless community,” Beu said.
“I wish every community had a Jason Farris,” added Dawn Price, executive director of Friendship Shelter, which manages the city’s overnight homeless shelter in Laguna Canyon.
There, she often turns to Farris for assistance, as she did when a man who stayed overnight in shelter died. Price found Farris’ name in his wallet as his emergency contact. The officer remained at her side to explain procedures, make arrangements and provide emotional support, she said.
Farris knows most of the members of the homeless community by name, said Price, who recalled another instance when Farris helped reunite a mentally ill homeless woman with her brother.
“They know they can depend on him to be fair and honest and treat them with dignity,” said a local resident and homeless advocate Faye Chapman, who published a book about street people, “Faces of the Shadows, Life on the Street,” and assists those without a permanent address to obtain identification, bus passes and prescriptions.
A different view comes from once-homeless Leonard Porto, whose lawsuit that questioned the legality of rules limiting who can stay at the city’s shelter was recently dismissed.
Farris is among the officers who awakens and cites people in the early morning hours sleeping in the shelter parking lot for violations of the city’s illegal lodging ordinance and impounds their property, Porto pointed out, describing the actions as “acts of domestic terrorism against vulnerable, disabled, homeless persons.” Those turned away from the overly full shelter, known formally as the Alternative Sleeping Location, are not permitted to sleep in the parking lot.
“Mr. Porto has made those comments to me… I’m sorry he feels that way, everyone is entitled to their opinion,” said Farris in response to the allegation. “I don’t agree with his opinion, but I think my efforts and actions more than speak for themselves,” he added. Farris bears no ill will to Porto, he claims that “I will provide him the same service I will provide all the residents and non-residents in Laguna Beach. I am happy to help him in any way possible and will be willing to work with him.”
Local resident and homeless advocate Jim Keegan says he doesn’t know Farris personally, but thinks he represents “the face of a shameful policy,” which results in “people going to jail for a basic need,” he said.