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St. Paul police officer helps homeless residents

November 24, 2018

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The day after city officials shut down a homeless camp near Cathedral Hill, St. Paul police officer Dean Koehnen is finding the campers again. It’s part of his job.

“We took half his stuff to storage,” he tells Bret Byfield, an outreach worker just about everyone on the streets seems to know. The two stand in a Burger King parking, less than a mile from the old camp. Nearby, a pair of tents sits on a tiny triangle of greenery.

They’re talking about one of the tents’ occupants, James, who lost the other half of his stuff during a fight with a woman after they were kicked off the Hill. The belongings — blankets and clothes, mostly — ended up strewn about the street next to some new condos, and police came to clear it away.

There are at least five people from the camp in the lot. There’s a little good news: One of the women got some money “from a settlement,” enough to put a group of them in a hotel for the weekend.

Koehnen is there to make things go smoothly — or at least a little less rough — for his acquaintances. Some of whom he’s known for years.

“It’s really empowering to have a police officer rooting for you,” Byfield, who works with Radius Health, told the Pioneer Press .

The two got together about 12 years ago after the state ditched its anti-vagrancy statute. The idea that police, social workers and the courts could work together to deal with those who frequently ran afoul of the system seems commonplace now. But it wasn’t back then.

“Otherwise, we were blaming each other for why Johnny ain’t better,” Byfield said.

That’s when they “recruited” their first landlord to let them rent three duplexes to homeless people they trusted enough to pay on time.

″(The landlord) just trusted me to make it work,” Byfield said. “That was kind of our pilot.”

Two years down the road, the state Legislature funded the St. Paul Police Homeless Outreach Project, to the tune of about $200,000 a year. That’s enough to put 30 to 35 homeless people up in apartments across the city. Or at least pay a good part of their rent: $600 monthly for a room with communal space, or $840 for a single.

Sure, it’s a drop in the bucket. According to Ramsey County’s most recent count at the beginning of the year, there are 1,424 homeless across the county. But Byfield and Koehnen see it as an emergency stop-gap for the most deserving.

“We’ve had people on the whole 10 years,” Byfield said. “A lot of our people have backgrounds that they’re not really ever gonna qualify (for an apartment on their own).”

One of the people at the camp, Koehnen thinks, qualifies. A man named Jesse, who he spent no small amount of time talking off the Hill the day before. In the end, it will be the police — Koehnen — who will have to sign off on the voucher. They’ll be plenty of visits, to make sure he isn’t a “banana peel guy.”

After a while, the pair gets in a car and drives over to meet another acquaintance. One Koehnen’s known for a year and a half.

Jim F. first met Koehnen when the officer snapped the pair of two-by-fours he used to wedge his bedroom door shut.

The 62-year-old Vietnam veteran had been sleeping on the floor of a vacant building on the East Side, and awoke to a 6-foot-8 bear of a man barreling into his squat.

“That’s why I call him ‘Yogi,’” Jim said. “Look at the size of this little guy. A doorway disappears.”

Koehnen, who worked in code enforcement, had received reports of a couple of Dayton’s Bluff homes getting broken into at night.

At least once over the next hour, talking about hard times, Jim mentioned that he’d been a Marine in Vietnam. It would later check out.

“It’s your lucky day,” Koehnen told him.

The officer drove Jim to a nearby Motel 6, and put him up out of his own pocket. For the first time in a while, Jim started crying.

Over the next year and a half, “He opened up some stories to me, oh my gosh, I can’t ever imagine. This job is crazy enough,” said Koehnen, whose father was in the military.

“He saved my bacon,” said Jim, who secured a housing voucher and now lives in a duplex in the North End, fixing cars.

“So what’s going on over on the East Side, now that I’m over here?” Jim asked Koehnen over a bowl of soup at the Coffee Cup.

“It’s quiet,” Koehnen replied.

The two laugh and Jim said, “I’m moving back.”

A seventh-generation vet whose great-great-great-great grandfather was also a serviceman, and whose dad fought in World War II, Vietnam and the Korean War, Jim said he worries more about younger vets he met on the streets. Kids suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder just as bad as he did.

“The ones coming from Afghanistan, they’re going through the same,” Jim said.

During their meal, Jim asked about the homeless camp on Cathedral Hill.

“It’s gone,” Koehnen said.

“What? Where’d they take ’em all?”

“All over.”

“Spread ’em all over, like the wind, eh?”

“Thinking of moving some in with you,” Koehnen said.

“Over my ... dead body,” Jim laughed.

“We’re moving ’em in right now. This was a diversion.”

In reality, Koehnen did find a voucher for the man at the Burger King parking lot — one of the two the department has left.

If all goes well, he’ll move into his own place — not Jim’s — by the first of the month.

When asked what it was about Jesse that made him qualify, Koehnen said, “His willingness to want to better himself is obvious. He’s got some obviously mental health issues, but no drugs. ... And he’s intelligent.

“I had a couple one-on-one conversations with him where he was crying. And he needed a break. He just ... he needed a break.”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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