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San Diego Officer’s 15 Years Working With The Homeless Coming To An End

Reported by Katie Schoolov

For 15 years, Schnell's other reality has been among the city's homeless. He's the leader of the police department's Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT, a specific set of officers who work with the city's homeless population.

It's 6 a.m. and San Diego police Sgt. Rick Schnell has already been at work for an hour. He arrives at a police station in Pacific Beach while it's still dark and suits up in his police uniform and bulletproof vest. He sends his team of four police officers and three health clinicians into the field, then gets in a large white passenger van to go pick up his partner.

"When I go to work, and I walk in there and turn on my radio, it's like I go into this world where nobody else is in," he says. "And I don't think people understand that you're in that world, that other reality."

For 15 years, Schnell's other reality has been among the city's homeless. He's the leader of the Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT, a specific set of officers who work with homeless people. They rarely make arrests, but instead try to earn homeless people's trust and help them get off the streets and into housing.

As Schnell steers the van to SDPD's Western Division, where his partner is waiting, he describes the HOT officers' methods. They don't interfere with homeless unless they get complaints about them, "because homelessness itself is not a crime," Schnell says.

"A lot of times they're at locations in response to complaints, like, they're drinking, they're smoking pot, they're blocking doorways, they're blocking the sidewalk, all those little disorder things," he says. "They'll call us into the area and we'll start talking to everybody. Patrol will leave, and then my team will stay behind. Everybody on the street kind of knows the Homeless Outreach Team van, knows we're not going to arrest them for whatever, that's patrol's job. So they kind of get to know who we are, and we offer all those alternatives. Like we could facilitate the winter shelter, we can facilitate into St. Vincent's, we can facilitate into Rescue Mission, so that's what we do."

In his first call of the day, Schnell stops on a bridge over Interstate 5 just north of downtown. Patrol had reported two homeless men are camped out there, and Schnell's team needs them to leave.

He and his partner, Officer John Liening, hop out of the van and talk to the men. A police SUV marked with Homeless Outreach Team on the door also pulls up.

"Yeah, this is no good," Schnell says to the men. "Has somebody from the Homeless Outreach Team talked to you guys?"

"Yesterday somebody came by," one man responds. "They took down our names or something."

The bridge is littered with cardboard boxes, the men's belongings spilling out of shopping carts. Schnell recognizes one of them.

"Hey man, I've seen you before," he says. "You used to live in Chula Vista right?"

He asks if they're interested in going to a downtown homeless shelter, but they decline. They don't have to go to a shelter, Schnell says, but they can't stay on the bridge.

"You've kinda gotta go," he says kindly. "This is not going to happen."

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

San Diego Police Sgt. Rick Schnell talks with a man who's camped out just outside a homeless shelter. Schnell tells the man he can't stay where he is and asks him if he'd like help.

Homeless people can usually sleep on the streets until 5:30 or 6 a.m. without police bothering them, Schnell says. But as the sun rises, the understanding is that they need to get up and move their possessions. Ideally, Schnell wants people to move to a homeless shelter, but he says they usually decline.

"If they don't want it, we can't force them, so we just kind of talk to them and try to develop trust," he says. Although the city's homeless shelters are usually full, Schnell and his team can work with service providers to find a place for people who want help.

Schnell still seems incredibly compassionate despite dealing daily with the suffering and mental illness found among the city's homeless. He knows almost every homeless person by name, and spends time talking with them, checking in on their health and asking if they need anything. It's difficult to imagine doing this job for a week, let alone 15 years.

But now, Schnell's job will soon be ending. He's been a police officer for 35 years, and five years ago, he entered the Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP, which means he has to retire in a few months.

Police Sgt. Teresa Clark will replace Schnell when he retires. She says he's the perfect person for the job.

"He understands that to get some of these people the help that they need, they have to trust you," she says. "And he's so good at building that trust and the report with the people he's trying to help to get them to the day that they're ready to accept help."

Schnell and Liening next stop to talk to a homeless man near San Diego Civic Center who goes by "Elvis." Elvis is camped out on a dirty blanket next to an overflowing shopping cart, and knows he needs to pack up his things and move. But first, Liening asks to see Elvis's legs, which are covered with infected wounds that Elvis says are spider bites.

Elvis Sings 'Hug Me'

Elvis, a homeless man in San Diego, sings "Hug Me, Hold Me, Kiss Me and Love Me."

"Each time I operate on this, it's healing," Elvis tells him.

"Ok, but don't you think you'd be better off going to a shelter where it's warm and they can get these things cleaned up?" Liening asks.

"I'm not looking for a free ride," Elvis says. "I'm looking for the chance to get my life back in order."

Elvis says Schnell tells him repeatedly that things could change.

"But I think that's mostly in his mind," Elvis says. "This is my idea of getting off the street, is getting my music cut, getting it downloaded, the money coming in, then I go buy me a house, get my wife back, get my life back."

Schnell says later that he doesn't let the daily suffering he sees affect him.

"I can turn it off, when I go home, I turn it off," he says. "I don't carry it with me or any of that."

He pauses, then adds, "I mean sometimes it's upsetting."

"You see Elvis there with these like legs and stuff, but that's his gig," he says. "He has a right to refuse. My thing is, just keep talking to him."

When Schnell first began working with the homeless, he and Liening started the Serial Inebriate Program, or SIP. The program, a partnership with nonprofits Mental Health Systems and St. Vincent de Paul Village's Family Health Center, offers a six-month drug and alcohol treatment program instead of jail time to chronic homeless who've been repeatedly arrested for being drunk in public.

"I was a sergeant over in Ocean Beach and Hillcrest, and we were arresting a lot of drunks," Schnell recalls of how the program got started. "I mean, a lot. Forty a week. And all of a sudden, my partner John Liening comes up and says let's stop this, let's try something different. He goes, why don't we just get them treatment, somehow funnel them through treatment, since they're already going to jail.

"So we tried that, and I gotta tell you, it worked right away. They came out of jail, they came out of courts, we got them into treatment and right away they did ok."

By 9 a.m., it's bright and sunny, and Schnell and Liening head to their next stop: the downtown jail. There they pick up Kevin Zmarthie, a homeless man who was arrested repeatedly for being drunk in public and has chosen treatment through SIP over jail. Schnell greets Zmarthie warmly, joking, "I'm sorry, but I can't let you drive," as he leads him to a fenced-off seat in the back of the van.

Zmarthie says when he heard about the SIP program, he jumped at the opportunity.

"I finally realized after all of these years that I wasn't going to do it on my own," he says.

Schnell says people like Zmarthie make his job worth it.

"They're good guys," he says. "You know what, it could be you, it could be me, in half a second. This is their last opportunity, because without this SIP program, they would be dead, and they're not."

David Folsom, the medical director at St. Vincent de Paul, works with Schnell regularly.

"He has this great bond with lots of people who've been on the street for years and years," Folsom says. "He relates to them very well. He's able to work with them in a gentle manner and get them the care they need. He's like a social worker with a gun."

And Deni McLagan, the SIP program manager for Mental Health Systems, says Schnell is a "guy who really gets it."

"That's really essential to the program that you have the right officers in place who understand the population that they're serving," she says.

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

San Diego Sgt. Rick Schnell drives with his partner John Liening in the Homeless Outreach Team's passenger van, which they use to transport homeless people to service providers like St. Vincent de Paul.

As Schnell and Liening drive through the city, they joke with each other constantly. Liening makes fun of how slow Schnell drives, cracking, "Took that corner a little hot there, didn't you?" as Schnell slowly turns the van.

"I did!" Schnell jokes back. "Sorry!"

They also repeat a joke throughout the morning.

"When seconds count," Liening says, and pauses.

"We're minutes away," Schnell finishes.

Then Schnell's cell phone rings, and Liening shakes his head. Schnell's ringtone is the theme from "Dragnet."

Later, Schnell shares his love for "Star Trek"—he has a coffee mug that looks like Spock's head and wears a Star Trek T-shirt under his bulletproof vest—then explains his "parallel universe theory" for how people interact with the homeless.

Sgt. Schnell's Parallel Universe Theory

Sgt. Rick Schnell describes his parallel universe theory about how people relate to the homeless.

"Lot of times when you're dealing with homeless, they're out there on the street, and they're sleeping there, or they're drunk out there, or they're doing whatever, and people don't even notice them," he says. "So you have the homeless universe and then you have everyone else. And they kind of coexist next to each other. We as police officers can live in either universe, and we can travel back and forth between universes and help out."

But Schnell and Liening only have another month to spend together until Schnell's retirement kicks in. Schnell says along with the early mornings, he's happy to leave behind the political wrangling between the city and different agencies.

"Sometimes I'm not clear who's in charge, and that's upsetting," he says. "All of a sudden a large sum of money will go to something, and it's not vetted through anything, because there's a lot of people out there who really know what's going on with homeless stuff, and that's upsetting."

But, he says, if he had his choice, he wouldn't be retiring now.

"Because stuff's starting to happen now," he says. "I think the city is doing 100 times better than when I first started this. I think there's a real movement to get things going. And we'll see."

After the end of April, Schnell will no longer be a police officer who crosses into the world of the homeless. But he hopes he's made enough progress with his work that it continues on without him.


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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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