MAN ON THE BEAT: Cambridge police department's homeless outreach officer

Tom Benner
Spare Change News

For three years, Officer Eric Helberg has served as the city’s first homeless outreach officer, walking the city and getting to know its street dwellers, helping them however he can — from giving them a blanket to telling them where to get medical care or a free meal, offering a ride to a homeless shelter, helping long-lost relatives to reunite, or sometimes just listening to their stories.

“If you need medical care, we’ll get you to a hospital. If you need psychiatric care, I can get in touch with the outreach workers from the shelters,” Helberg said in a recent interview at Cambridge police headquarters. “We can get people into the shelter if they want to see a doctor. Clothes, bottled water, whatever it is, we’ve expanded it so we have a resource we can utilize. I think it’s been huge in getting the homeless to see us as another service provider, not just as law enforcement per se.”

On a typical day, Helberg checks various spots in East Cambridge where the homeless often congregate, then makes his way to Inman, Porter, Harvard and Central Squares. Helberg walks the city but also has access to a police wagon equipped with supplies that might be helpful.

“It’s almost a combination of police officer, social worker, cab driver, everything,” Helberg said of his beat.

At first, many of the city’s homeless community were a little skeptical of an approaching police officer. Eventually they saw Helberg as someone to talk with, even go to for help.

“Once they get past this,” said Helberg, putting a hand on his police badge, “once they realize there’s a person inside the uniform that’s there to listen, it’s amazing what people will open up and say, the help they will accept when they know you’re there to help and you’re not there to harass.”

One of those who was initially skeptical was a homeless man who had been living in Harvard Square and who
had been the cause for numerous complaints. Eventually, he warmed up to Helberg and told him his story – and in turn, he learned about HomeStart, a nonprofit agency that helps the homeless find permanent housing and settle into the community.

Soon the man was housed for the first time in 15 years, and today he belongs to a speaker’s bureau on homeless issues.

“He has been housed ever since. We still talk all the time, and he actually speaks at different functions about homelessness,” Helberg said. “He credits his interaction with the Cambridge police homeless outreach program for getting him to where he is today.

”On another occasion, Helberg helped a young man who was looking for his father – so the young man could wish his dad a happy birthday.

“I took the individual down to where I knew his father would be. The two had a very moving moment,” Helberg said. “Seeing his dad in that capacity, and the father seeing how much that had affected his son — the next day they picked him up and took him home. He has been housed and sober and employed for almost two and a half years now, and he still contacts me via social media and lets me know how he’s doing.”

While panhandlers are not necessarily homeless, and vice versa, Helberg has worked to combat aggressive panhandling, a frequent complaint among business owners when panhandlers stand in the front doors of businesses. Panhandling is protected as free speech, but making passersby feel uncomfortable or unsafe is not.

“The way we combat that is through social interaction — I talk to people, I let them know without barking orders at them that their behavior may upset people, may make some people afraid, it’s not welcome with the business community,” Helberg said.

Two panhandlers had been holding the door in front of one Central Square
business as customers came and went, prompting complaints from the business owner and customers.

“After speaking with the individuals over several days, we all agreed we would have an area opposite the door,” Helberg said.

“Once we got everybody on board with that, the complaints for that location dropped dramatically.
Everybody wins — they get a little space where they can panhandle, the businesses are happy, and the customers don’t feel like they’re being accosted all the time.”

Helberg developed the homeless outreach approach with Superintendent Steven Williams. A second officer, Matt Price, has been added to the homeless outreach beat.

“Every time they go out and interact with a group, it might reduce the calls for service or disruptive behavior. It definitely does reduce the calls for the need to transport to a facility,” Williams said. “A lot of times, they’re able to do an evaluation and get to a person before they get to a state where they’re going to need an ambulance run, so there have been fewer ambulance runs since this program started for that population, fewer ambulance runs translates into fewer emergency room bed visits for that population, because they’re not getting to that level. They need a shelter, they need someplace to go, but it might not be an emergency room bed.”

Williams adds that homeless populations often differ from one part of the city to the next.

“Down in Harvard Square we find a lot more of the younger, teenaged, twenty-somethings,” Williams said.

“Harvard Square is more of a bohemian-type atmosphere, whereas in Central Square, for example, we find a majority of the people from the CASPAR shelter, which are the chronically homeless, chronic alcoholic types. So it is a really different dynamic with the homeless.”

Williams said the police department doesn’t have a position yet on the charity meters that have been installed in Denver and some other cities. The meters resemble coin-operated parking meters, and allow passersby to donate spare change that will be donated to organizations serving the homeless. Some in the Cambridge and Boston business communities are pushing to have the meters installed here.

TOM BENNER is editor of Spare Change News.

PHOTO: ADRIANA ARMANO

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