Photos by Valery Gannenko.
The Long Beach Police Department’s Quality of Life unit has been working with the city’s homeless population since 2007. Recently, Valery Gannenko, a Russian journalist for the Moscow-based newspaper Sobesednik (Собеседник), who interned at the Long Beach Post this summer as part of an International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) exchange program, was given the opportunity to follow the Quality of Life team along to see their street outreach firsthand.
According to the Long Beach Police Foundation, the team serves as a liaison to connect homeless individuals to non-government agency services, housing resources and more. In 2016, the team conducted 1,306 field interviews; responded to 501 calls for service; purchased 211 motel rooms and made 112 mental crisis evaluations.
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“Ah, that one? We confiscated it from one man in the city,” answers Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) Officer Bradley Futak when I ask about the machete leaning on his cabinet near the door to his office.
We are filling out the paperwork and getting prepared for my ride-along with Futak and Tom Kirk, a mental health clinician from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, both part of LBPD’s Quality of Life team. Futak and Kirk have worked with homeless people throughout Long Beach for almost four years.
Although the total number of homeless people in Long Beach has decreased by 21 percent from 2,345 to 1,843 compared to two years ago, homelessness remains a problem in the city. It’s all about statistics, but Futak and Kirk care less about the numbers and more about the people—I’ve never heard them say the word “homeless,” referring instead to the people they help as “clients.”
This duo of a police officer and a clinical nurse is something required, because as Kirk says, about 47 percent of homeless people across the US have mental illnesses, 25 percent in Long Beach.
Three and a half years ago, Kirk joined the program to provide mental health support. One of his main roles is to evaluate people who can be dangerous to themselves or others by putting them on an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric hold.
“How do people become homeless here?” I ask them.
“The rent is high, and only 2 percent of property is vacant. This is how it happens,” Futak said. “Compared to Vegas, you can’t find anything for $900 per month here.”
We drive to the Long Beach Multi-Service Center, where the homeless go with their carts full of belongings (like brand new Nike sneakers, old blankets, piles of T-Shirts), or to wash themselves, get medical help, find a job or solve their housing problem.
A homeless man wearing a dirty swamp-green t-shirt asks for a cigarette, and when I give him one, he tears it and throws away the filter
“I don’t need it. Maybe you also have a candy?” he asks me.
I have no candy to give him, so he lights the cigarette and walks to the group of other men and women near the entrance.
Later, Kirk tells me the man’s story. He is mentally ill, and to cope with his illness he self-medicated with street drugs. Drugs helped him deal with some temporary symptoms, but made the whole thing worse.
“He looks like he is using again,” Kirk said.
We left the Multi-Service Center and started exploring the roads under bridges, looking for clients. It looks like we are playing hide-and-seek, with us seeking. Some homeless people just want to be left alone, live in the desolation—away from civilization. And under one bridge we find several spots where our clients can be.
A green pickup truck is parked in the darkness under the bridge. The officer checks the information about the owner via the radio and exits the car. The owner was sleeping inside peacefully, and after a short exchange, the team moves on to a nearby tent.
Officer Futak goes out to check whether someone lives there and finds a young guy who turned out to be 19 years old. He is dressed in old baggy trousers, a long sport jacket and slippers. A baseball cap on his head, his hands in his pockets.
While Futak is talking to him, he hides his face from my camera and turns his back to us.
He doesn’t need any medical help; he is okay living in the tent near the bridge, he says. A silent shaking of his head is the most frequent answer from him.
“Maybe you miss your mother? Maybe you want to see her again?” they ask.
The client nods, but he doesn’t remember his mother’s last name, only her first name. He does not recall her date of birth, he doesn’t know the city where she lives now, nor her phone number.
So we leave with nothing, promising the guy help with finding his mother and leaving him several bottles of water. When we are about to leave, a middle-aged woman, his friend, comes out of the tent.
“Some just don’t want help, it’s not against the law to be homeless here,” Futak said.
We then head to the park where several clients can be there. And there they are.
A woman is sitting on the bench, doing her makeup. She is probably 40-something years old, and one side of her face has a scar—she is a burn victim.
Futak is talking to her like she is an old friend.
“You know, we’ve helped a guy get back to Birmingham, Alabama recently. His rent is 207 dollars now,” Futak said.
“No, sir, I don’t like Alabama! They are going to shoot-me-nanny or put-me-on-the-tree-nanny. They are going to kill me or I’m gonna kill them! I like California and I don’t like the South, period,” the woman replies.
“You have family somewhere?” Kirk said.
The woman has family in Georgia, but she has a bad relationship with her sister—that’s why she doesn’t want to return there. She had a job in downtown Long Beach once, but she had lost it—now she lives in the street. And the makeup? The makeup is for her boyfriend.
An old man with a long beard, wearing a baseball cap and glasses, is constructing a solar panel—he has bought every part on eBay and this panel is for charging his cell phone. Another homeless man is watching him do the job.
“That’s what keeps his mind clear,” says Futak.
Those people do not want to return to what we would call a normal life— jobs, families, rent, mortgages are not for them. The only thing Futak and Kirk can do is to keep in touch with them if they need any help—that’s why Cecile, the woman with the makeup, gives Futak her new cellphone number.
But there is a story of one woman who decided to change her life, the officer tells me.
She has changed her life twice, actually. The first time is when she decided to become a pop singer and moved to Hollywood, but of course something went wrong and she didn’t became a singer, but homeless instead—on the street, using drugs that pushed her over the edge of mental illness.
The drugs made this woman hyper sexual and dangerous to herself—always talking about killing herself. She had five hospitalizations, each time she got clean from drugs and on prescribed medication again, but soon started using again.
But after the fifth hospitalization she understood that this should be over.
Recently, she called Kirk and asked for help getting home to Missouri to start a new life; help which he was ready, and able, to give.