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Kansas officer embraces idea of community policing

March 30, 2018

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — Several days a week Reni Clift volunteers washing dishes in the kitchen at Elmdale Senior Center.

That’s a massive switch from her former life, spending her days camped out with all her possessions piled in a red wagon. Now she has a small apartment to call home and has been applying for work at local businesses.

Clift has come a long way because someone took the time to create a trusting relationship. While many reached out when they saw her on the street, her typical response was she didn’t need help.

Hutchinson Police Department Community Resource Officer Anna Ruzhanovska, however, heard those words and didn’t give up. With the help of Erica Rivera, a Prairie Independent Living coordinator, they built a bond. Slowly, over time Clift came to accept what they had to offer - friendship.

“I feel close to them because they helped me a lot,” Clift told The Hutchinson News .

When she was hungry, Rivera brought her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“Anna came and got me at Larned,” Clift said. “That’s a long drive.”

Last summer, they began forging the relationship. At a time when the Hutchinson Police Department received numerous complaints about Clift, from reports of her showering in Avenue A Park to obstructing the sidewalk with her personal belongings and hooking up her radio to a city outlet.

Ruzhanovska had contacted Clift in the past. But when the officer reached out again in July, she suggested coming up with a list of creative solutions to help Clift connect with family, find stable, permanent housing and get mental health assistance.

Clift would tell people she was 21. But she was 38, born in December 1979. Ruzhanovska learned this and other insights into Clift’s character through contacting family in Wichita and Texas. One refused to help; others were not capable of taking her into their homes. An aunt said she would pray for her.

By making the contacts, Ruzhanovska learned Clift had various mental health issues. She had moved to Hutchinson with her mother, who set up state benefits automatically deposited to a debit card. Life looked under control until Clift stopped taking her medication and relapsed. Her mother became ill and couldn’t provide for her daughter any longer. She was told to leave. She became homeless, and that’s when she began living on the streets of Hutchinson.

Clift’s mother died in 2015. But Clift believed her mother was still alive and tried regularly calling her on the phone. The homeless woman even imagined seeing her mother driving around Hutchinson.

Whenever Ruzhanovska asked Clift what she needed, such as goods, services or shelter, her response was always nothing. She said her family deposited money on her debit card in return for labor.

Ruzhanovska continued reaching out, even driving Clift to First Call for Help, in hopes of getting her supplies.

What Ruzhanovska discovered was certain items would trigger negative emotions, sending Clift into a panic. Just the color of the blue bag filled with supplies from First Call sent Clift fleeing the building.

Ruzhanovska became concerned, because it appeared Clift couldn’t make rational decisions. She received the assistance of a caseworker with Kansas Department for Children and Families. They offered Clift a temporary motel room, but she refused all services.

Ruzhanovska began bringing Clift home cooked meals, a duffle bag, shoes, clothing, even an old cell phone from home.

Despite efforts to help, they both were exhausting all their resources. At the same time, complaints kept coming from the public through phone calls and emails.

People would give Clift items, and by August her red wagon was growing taller, making it difficult to pull. She would leave it in one place. There would be more complaints. It was in violation of city ordinances, so one solution was to keep the wagon in Avenue A Park during the day, moving it back on Main Street at night when the park closed.

That wasn’t the solution Ruzhanovska or her partners, Community Resource Officers Darrell Tossie and Stephen Schaffer, were looking for.

With the help of Erica Rivera of the Prairie Independent Living Center, the officers started working with Clift to help get her birth certificate, social security number and state ID. Once that was accomplished, she was set up with the Salvation Army to help manage her finances.

“I gained her trust,” Ruzhanovska said. “She was OK getting in an unmarked vehicle sitting in the front seat.”

By the first of the year, Clift had a setback and had to go to Larned for a week. All her possessions and the red wagon were tossed in a field, by a person who had brought Clift to her home and was renting her a room.

Ruzhanovska felt like everything they had worked for was falling apart. But the officer was determined not to give up on Clift. Ruzhanovska and another police officer went to the field and retrieved all her belongings and put them in the HPD storage.

Meanwhile, Rivera was able to find Clift an apartment. Ruzhanovska drove to Larned and brought Clift back to Hutchinson. Ruzhanovska took Clift to the Reno County Food Bank where they were able to stock her apartment with food. Employees with the HPD and Reno County Sheriff’s Department donated items including a bed, linens, a comforter, dining table and even a TV to furnish her apartment.

“She was overwhelmed,” Ruzhanovska said. “She didn’t have a residence for so long.”

The CRO program has been in operation for a year and a half.

“This is a small part of what we do,” Ruzhanovska said. The job has allowed her time to build the support and help provide the services to Clift.

Despite her willingness to help, Ruzhanovska said there were times when Clift could be challenging.

“Anna has gone above and beyond what anyone else would have done,” said Tossie. “She spent 14 to 16 hour days helping her.”

Now they talk just about every day on the phone. When Ruzhanovska is off duty, she takes calls from Clift. On a recent afternoon Clift called and Ruzhanovska told her she would help install blinds in the apartment.

As long as Clift stays on her medication a fresh start awaits her.

If it hadn’t been for the resolve of Ruzhanovska, Clift could still be living on the streets of Hutchinson, with all her belongings piled atop the red wagon.

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Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com

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