Hoarders, homeless specialty of Dallas crisis team
11 members include licensed social workers and counselors
By Christina Rosales
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — As manager of the Dallas police crisis intervention unit, Dave Hogan often finds himself and his co-workers in messes.
Their cases can take them to the inside of a hoarder's home that smells so bad it makes rookie officers gag. They might find themselves at an abandoned homeless camp, while the city cleans up broken crack pipes, filthy pillows and takeout containers under a freeway overpass. Sometimes they help people tangled up in family issues or a long list of neglected mental illnesses.
"They're the sickest of the sick," Hogan said. "They're the people who need help the most."
The crisis team, whose 11 members include licensed social workers and counselors, doesn't respond to the public's calls. Instead, police or Dallas Fire-Rescue officials refer them to cases that social services can solve.
Hogan manages the unit, which includes specialists in juvenile problems, homelessness, mental illness and the elderly.
"All of us who work on the unit have a sense of mission," Hogan said. "We go out to help others and always try to do the right thing. It's not always easy, but personal courage drives us to do that."
In some cases, Hogan and others respond to an elderly person with declining mental capacity who's living alone and doesn't know where else to turn. In decades past, such people may have relied on the beat cop to help solve their problems, said Ron Cowart, a supervisor on the unit. And while policing has changed since then, their expectations for officers haven't.
"You have those chronic 911 callers," said Ron Cowart, a supervisor on the unit. "Many are mentally ill and lose their sense of smell and think something's burning when it's not. Or they hear things that aren't there."
Other clients are homeless and living in dangerous conditions with little idea of how to access counseling and medical help. Aside from being in danger, these clients are a strain on law enforcement resources.
"With the homeless, a police officer has to walk a fine line between protecting the individual's rights and serving the community at large," Cowart said.
Cowart, a Vietnam war veteran with 21 years of policing experience, is known for his advocacy for the downtrodden or forgotten. He retired from the Police Department in 1989, then managed the old homeless day resource center.
He returned to the department five years ago to continue his work, this time with the crisis intervention unit.
"In my day there were no social services for the homeless," Cowart said. "We had this tendency to look at them as almost less than human. ... But then we began to build relationships, and we start to see them as humans."
Hogan often drives south of downtown in search of Tony, a homeless man who was once in prison and couldn't catch a break. With no job and no support system to help integrate him back into society, he just roams aimlessly hauling his possessions.
"He never would hurt anyone," Hogan said, after stopping to talk to Tony and asking if he's seen the doctor or eaten enough. "He'll tell you all the things you want to hear. He's just running out the clock at this point."
Seniors In Need
Valencia Hooper, a social worker in the unit, works primarily with seniors. Some have grown so frail that they're past the point where independence is safe, while others just don't know they need a little help. It's a spectrum, Hooper said.
On a recent Thursday, she visited a home where an elderly woman is cared for by a relative. The two were hoarding more than 20 dogs last year and, more recently, many cats in the home. Most of the dogs were seized, but the house is still not suitable for the elderly woman, who has mobility issues and is recovering from cancer.
As they opened the door for Hooper, the stench of mildew and animal feces assaulted her senses. The floors are buckled and cracked by water damage. The women assured Hooper that they have plans to move, that they are taking care of things. Still the social worker probed and explained her recommendations sternly, followed by words like "pudding" or "darling."
"The people have called police and have been distressed, so we know what's going on but we need them to work with us," Hooper said. "That's the kind of stuff I like. Being out with those hard cases and then helping people end up in a better place, just seeing that transformation."
Copyright 2014 The Dallas Morning News