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Deputies reach out to homeless with compassion

Rick Monroe

Special to the Village News

There's a new way the Sheriff's department is using to deal with the homeless problem in the county. Deputies are assigned to two teams – one in North County and one in South County – to offer hope and support to individuals rather than making arrests.

"It's very satisfying," said Sgt. Aaron Montan, who heads the Homeless Assistance Resource Team "We see people on the verge of tears when we tell them we can get them a hotel room."

He said that providing temporary housing – through county-funded vouchers – is an important first step to help get a life back on track.

"Then other needs like detox, prescription medicine, etc. can be provided from an assigned social worker/case manager.

The acronym for the program is HART, but Montan proudly admitted, "Yes, we have a heart."

The HART effort began in June 2019 and deputies are assigned full-time to this effort in the unincorporated areas of the county.

Montan directs the two teams, one with three deputies in North County and the other with five deputies in South County. He alternates working with the two groups.

One of the deputies in the North County unit is Cpl. Jason Hayek, a Fallbrook area resident who grew up in Oceanside.

"It's a different style of enforcement, taking creative thinking about problems rather than the instinctive response to a problem of arrest," Hayek said. "Sometimes the forceful response is not the best – there are other aspects."

As an example, he is working with the management of the Pico Promenade for an environmental design that would help reduce the homeless population in that area.

"It's nice to give back to people in need, to people who need and want help," Hayek said. "It's pretty rewarding."

Montan said the deputies expand law enforcement systems to the homeless population, including medical and psychiatric wellness, food and shelter, identification and documentation needs and any public benefits access.

"This is a coveted position to be selected," Montan said. "It's a special team."

He noted that the deputies will sometimes hike for an hour or more to an encampment in rural areas, but that they also deal with situations like those behind a shopping center.

"We're definitely making a difference," the sergeant said.

Outreach, enforcement and cleanup are the three areas that the deputies focus on, Montan said. Cleanup is done by a hazmat company contracted by the county. Another contract provides the social workers and the arrangement with hotels.

Temporary total rooms for the North County program are in Escondido and Vista. Hotel rules include no guests and no drugs.

"Our program sets them up to be in front of the line for Section 8 housing," Montan said, explaining that sometimes it takes 3-6 months of help before the subsidized housing is available.

Montan said the "old way" of dealing with the homeless sometimes resulted in a person being arrested – and re-arrested – multiple times.

"The laws have changed, and you can't just arrest someone for being homeless unless they deny shelter," he explained. "If not, you can't do much. You can't just make life hard for them. It used to be people might be arrested 70 or 100 times. In 2020 we started information-led policing."

The HART program works with other agencies now, including public health nurses, nonprofits and social workers.

Montan said deputies are able to help in many ways, such as help in obtaining a free ID from the DMV. There are also special programs for people under 25, veterans, and other referrals.

"The key is developing good rapport with the homeless," he noted.

Hayek and other deputies were at the Fallbrook Library on Sept. 9 to interview homeless people – along with social workers – and provide rides to the participating hotels.

He said most vouchers are funded by the county but the number varies. On the day of the interviews, he said they only had four vouchers.

Other services may include giving a ride to a clinic or hospital.

The team also partners with the fire marshal, park rangers and crime teams.

The deputies, who are armed, also are on call for other assignments as needed, including responding to fires, plane crashes or other major disturbances.

The team is a good point of contact for anyone interested in homeless resources programs. Email [email protected].


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