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St. Paul, Minn. — The Listening House, a downtown St. Paul homeless shelter, is packed, mostly with men, who want a place to spend their day, make a phone call and get a cup coffee while they seek refuge from the streets and the cold and snow. When police Sgt. Paul Paulos walks up, the crowd outside the shelter parts so he can enter. The men greet him with familiarity.
Paulos has dropped in to chat with the director of Listening House. He gives her the latest information about homeless camps about a mile away that he's just checked out.
"I went down to try to see some camps, but they've evicted them all. I just came from the mission, they're loaded up for the night," Paulos said.
Paulos says bad weather means a busy night for shelters. And on this night, the temperature is around freezing and a steady snowfall blankets the city.
Paulos and Rosemarie Reger-Rumsey engage in a friendly chat for a few minutes. This is a far cry from the days, a few years ago, when the relationship between police and social service providers was so bad that Paulos says he used to ignore much of what Reger-Rumsey said.
Reger-Rumsey says the police were an unwelcome presence in her shelter.
"And if an officer did walk in five years ago, this room would get dead silent because everyone would be looking to see who was going to get hauled out of here," Reger-Rumsey said. "Now that the police are a presence here on a routine basis, they may look around a little bit, but they won't stop what they're doing."
About two years ago, the St. Paul police and the social service providers began working together in their dealings with the homeless. Reger-Rumsey had invited two patrol officers to visit the shelter when they weren't making an arrest, so they could get to know the Listening House clientele under a different set of circumstances.
Since then, the relationship has become more formalized in what's dubbed the "police-provider forum." In that scenario, the police and the providers consult each other, discussing the best ways to help the homeless and keep them safe from predators.
"We've had a few occasions where someone who probably shouldn't have been in here was here. And we sat down together with that person where I said, 'I don't want you here,' and the police backed me up," Reger-Rumsey said.
The relationship evolved slowly. Initially there was little trust between the two sides, and there were some conflicting priorities. But now, for the first time, St. Paul has included a session about the "police-provider forum" in its training academy.
Sgt. Paulos patrols the two-square-mile downtown area where many of the city's estimated 1,500 homeless people live. He says the police try to protect the homeless just as they do with anyone else. But one of the challenges has been gaining the trust of those who are experiencing homelessness.
"That's where the police and providers have to become stronger partners, because without that, they won't trust us. They trust the providers," said Paulos. "But the police -- unless you've never been in trouble with the police ... very seldom are we just stopping by to say 'hi.'"
But Paulos says police are doing that now -- at The Listening House and at other shelters in the city. They're on a first-name basis with some of the city's homeless people. And now that police are more familiar with some of the problems those individuals are facing, they can look for alternative measures, such as counseling instead of jail.
The police and the social service providers meet every other month to discuss their concerns and work out any problems.
For instance, when nearly all of the downtown patrol cars were tied up admitting homeless people into alcohol detoxification centers, the police asked the providers for help. One shelter agreed to raise the alcohol limit for those seeking refuge, freeing up police to patrol the streets.
When they're on the streets and working with the homeless, Paulos says the police try to keep in mind a couple of key words -- dignity and respect.
"When it's all done it's the respect, and treat them with some dignity. Treat them as a person," Paulos said.