Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to affordable housing and housing the unhoused. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, and LISC.
KALAMAZOO, MI – It would be great to enter a room – or approach strangers -- without getting a big reaction, says Sgt. Amil Alwan.
But the 23-year veteran of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety says, “People react to the uniform.”
That only changes when people get to know you a bit, he says, and realize you’re there to help. So Alwan and two partners are working to make more favorable reactions a reality when they approach Kalamazoo’s unhoused population.
They are part of the Community Service Team, a new effort by KDPS to help unhoused people and individuals struggling with psychological or emotional issues.
Sgt. Amil Alwan of the Kalamazoo Public Safety's new Community Service Team, says, "Any one of us can become homeless at any point in time. That's the biggest thing we keep forgetting."
“The mission of the Community Service Team is to help the unhoused and those who are suffering from mental crisis to receive resources and to … have somebody who can listen to them,” says Alwan, who has built relationships with people on the street for several years as a patrol officer in downtown Kalamazoo.
He describes the team as “the middle-man who can point you in different directions and try to ensure that you are getting the help that you need.” That is in contrast to occasions when officers have not known where to send someone for help.
The team was started in June with Alwan, along with Public Safety Officer Mary Miller, who has been a sworn officer for more than four years with KDPS, and Kelsey Harness, a social worker and former consumer education instructor at Western Michigan University who joined KDPS last year to be its social services coordinator and victim advocate. Harness is a civilian who formerly worked as a foster care case manager and also worked with young foreign refugees at Bethany Christian Services.
Alwan has crisis intervention, peer support, and critical stress-debriefing training. He is a member of the department’s hostage negotiating team and helps train others in crisis intervention.
Sgt Amil Alwan of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety looks at refuse left at a site where unhoused people camped. He says it is very unsafe for people to camp outdoors in the city.
“It’s a great feeling when you can tell somebody about a service and connect them with that service and then they benefit from it,” Harness says. “That’s one of the ultimate goals.”
At the same time, the team never wants to make assumptions about what people need or don’t need, or what they want or don’t want, she says.
“We really try to go back to having conversations with them and learning about them and hearing what they’re interested in and what goals they have,” she says. “And that sort of sets the foundation for where we go from there.”
Officer Miller has crisis intervention team training as well as training in interviewing and interrogation. She is soon to undergo FBI hostage negotiation training.
She says the team pays attention to radio calls by other officers and responds to those where other officers request intervention. The team also responds when they recognize they already have a relationship with the subject that other officers are encountering. Those response calls include reports of people trespassing; assaults involving suspicious people; people living in vacant houses; individuals exhibiting bizarre behavior; panhandling calls; and individuals with suicidal ideations, Miller says.
“We do a lot of referrals. We’re also in all the camps,” Alwan says, referring to small clusters of unhoused people that he and his partners find living outdoors in out-of-the-way places. “So we’re helping people out within the camps but we also have to abide by laws and city ordinances.”
Miller says every unhoused person has a different story about how they came to find themselves where they are. If people in the wider community care about the unhoused population, she suggests they take time to figure out someone’s background and ask, “Where did they come from? Why are they where they’re at?”
Kalamazoo Public Safety Officer Mary Miller, left, and Social Services Coordinator Kelsey Harness, prepare to check out a wooded area where unhoused people camped until recently on the city's East Side.
The team’s focus is on helping people find resources to satisfy their immediate needs such as meals, clothing, and warm shelter. But it also focuses on encouraging people to find long-term solutions for their employment, substance abuse, medical, educational, and housing needs. The team makes referrals to any number of local nonprofit organizations with whom its members meet monthly and with whom they consider partners. Those partners include Ministry with Communit
y, Housing Resources Inc
., Loaves and Fishes
food pantry, the Coalition for the Unhoused
, Animal’s Best Friend Fund
(veterinary care for pets), Urban Alliance
, and Integrated Services of Kalamazoo
“It’s a huge issue every single day,” Miller says of homelessness. And she says, “We’re constantly encouraging people to take that next step.”
She and her partners say listening to people helps build relationships and that, in turn, helps people trust them.
“It’s really about relationships,” says KDPS Chief David Boysen. “If you have no relationships and an officer says you need to get hold of somebody at Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services
or something like that, they’re not going to listen to that unless there’s that trust and relationship. And by having officers dedicated to that like Sgt. Alwan and PSO Miller, they get to know these folks. … They’re more likely to listen and take them up on those offers of help.”
Boysen says the Community Service Team – working with the department’s Community Policing Unit – is intended to work with the unhoused as well as individuals experiencing problems that others may not understand.
Kelsey Harness, social services coordinator for Kalamazoo Public Safety's new Community Service Team, looks around a wooded area where unhoused people camped until recently east of downtown Kalamazoo.
Uniformed officers have been involved in most of the City of Kalamazoo’s interactions with the homeless over the past few years -- most notably the policing and eventual closing of two large encampments of unhoused people on the eastern fringe of downtown Kalamazoo in 2021. Public Safety continues to enforce ordinances that forbid camping in public spaces and camping without permission on private property. But Alwan says he and his team try to work respectfully with the unhoused.
When the team asks people to leave a property, Alwan says, “I always ask, ‘What is your plan? What’s your game plan? What are we doing?’ Once we start working on that game plan, we’re constantly giving them information. … After a time, we tell them, ‘Hey, at this point, we need you to vacate this property.’”
He says, “Most of the time they’ll ask, ‘How long do we have?’ And we’ll say, ‘How long do you need?’ Officers will then work with a property owner to give them the time they need. That may be a day or a few days.
“We recognize that we have struggled with a large houseless population in Kalamazoo,” says Boysen. “Many times when you’re dealing with the houseless population, some of the issues that they have, people don’t know what to do. So they call the police. And a lot of times, it’s not a police matter. But we’re all that people know to call.”
He says Public Safety doesn’t have all the answers to homelessness or how to address those suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and other issues. But he says, “if we build the connections with the community services providers that we have in this area, we can have a unit that can have a hand-off with those other services to help do long-term solutions to these issues.”
“We wanted to really look at what we could do to have officers dedicated to getting to know this population, and finding out what their needs are, and what services they’re lacking so we can plug them in with the right resources,” Boysen says.
Alwan says success for him is visiting a shelter for the unhoused and having people approach him and call him, Miller, or Harness by name.
Kalamazoo Public Safety Officer Mary Miller looks at refuse left at a site where unhoused people camped.
“One of the biggest accomplishments is when you’re standing at a location and you have those who are unhoused talking to you and saying your name or saying they want to talk to you,” Alwan says. “You have WMed (Western Michigan University Homer Stryker School of Medicine
) helping individuals. You have ISK outreach workers helping. You have volunteers from other activist groups helping. We’re all in one big circle helping for the common cause. That is probably one of the biggest accomplishments.”
Explaining why she joined the team, Harness says, “I really value working with people individually. That’s one thing that I learned throughout my career. As much as I enjoyed teaching, it was difficult to build individual relationships when you have large class sizes. And that’s (one-on-one is) where I feel as if I’m able to be best used -- when I’m able to build those one-on-one personal relationships.”
Miller balked at people who assume the unhoused are all lazy, dirty, or crazy. She says. “I make it a goal every single day that I work just to have a good conversation with someone who is unhoused or in some sort of crisis. We just have a conversation where I’m not just law enforcement. I am here to assist them in navigating the issues that they’re having.”
A small encampment on Kalamazoo's eastside.
Alwan says that at any point in time, a person can lose their job and become homeless.
“At any point in time, something may trigger you to have some sort of mental health issue and you can be homeless,” he says. “Something can happen to you where your family can reject you and you can become homeless. Something can happen to you where society rejects you and you can become homeless. And at some point in time, you’re going to need somebody to help you and to be there for you. That’s where we are – there to help those who cannot help themselves or need a little bit of guidance.”
He says that guidance and help is provided largely by the many organizations in the community that provide human services.
“Any one of us can become homeless at any point in time,” Alwan says. “That’s the biggest thing we keep forgetting.”