Menlo Park police used city funds to taxi homeless woman to SF | November 6, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

News - November 6, 2019

Menlo Park police used city funds to taxi homeless woman to SF

Police chief and commander defend action as part of city's 'boutique approach' to homelessness

by Kate Bradshaw

In August of last year, Amanda Anderson, a homeless woman who lives in Menlo Park, was sent out of town on a one-way taxi trip to Ocean Beach in San Francisco on the city's dime, confirmed the Menlo Park Police Department.

A little after noon on Aug. 16, 2018, local business owners called the police department.

Menlo Park Police Comdr. William Dixon responded.

The business owners, Dixon said, were not happy that Anderson was there with her shopping carts near their businesses.

There are slightly different accounts of what happened next. According to Dixon, he asked Anderson if there was someplace she'd like to go because the local business owners would like her to relocate, and Anderson replied that she'd like to go to Ocean Beach.

Anderson told The Almanac she was told that she couldn't remain where she was and was asked where she would go if she could go anywhere other than Menlo Park. She said she recalled that at Ocean Beach there was someplace to wash her hair, so she said she'd go there.

Dixon said he spent a couple of hours with her, waiting for her to wash her hair in Menlo Park and pare down her belongings from something like a dozen shopping carts to three or four.

He then ordered her a taxi, which he said was paid for with city funds, to provide her one-way transportation to Ocean Beach. Her other belongings were taken for safekeeping to the Public Works department, where they were kept for six months before the items were discarded after going unclaimed.

There's no body-camera recording of the interaction because general interactions of "walking down the street and talking to people" aren't typically recorded, according to lawyer Nick Flegel of the Menlo Park City Attorney's Office.

While Anderson was in San Francisco, she was robbed of her belongings and found it difficult to find her way back to Menlo Park, she said.

Dixon said he doesn't know when Anderson got back to Menlo Park after being taxied to San Francisco, but the next reported police call received about her in Menlo Park wasn't until a little less than a month later, on Sept. 12, according to a summary of the police department's interactions with her, obtained through a California Public Records Act request.

He told The Almanac he didn't feel it was his call to decide whether Anderson was mentally fit to navigate the aftermath of being dropped off at the beach.

As for why he intervened in the first place, he emphasized, "She wasn't doing anything illegal whatsoever."

All he could do, he said, is ask her not to store her property near the business. He said Anderson told him that she wanted to go to San Francisco, and he made that happen. It was a "good faith effort to help her get somewhere she wanted to, just like we would for any other person," he added.

Dixon compared it to another instance where he helped to make arrangements to support a different unhoused person in Menlo Park in accessing transportation to a rehab facility in San Diego.

Two camps

Menlo Park Police Chief Dave Bertini said that the police department is stuck in the middle of two competing camps of locals when it comes to the problem of homelessness in the city. There are the people who wish to defend the city's homeless and who feel it's society's obligation to support them. There are also those, he explained, such as some business owners and some residents, including those with young children, who say they feel unsafe or threatened around the unhoused, and believe that the police and local government are ignoring their complaints.

"I see the argument for both sides," Bertini said. "From the law enforcement side, our hands are tied. ... Ordinances in the past to control this type of behavior (have been) deemed to be unconstitutional."

Both groups pressure the police department to do something about Anderson's situation in particular, Bertini said. "I get more complaints and emails from residents and business owners about her than anybody else," he told The Almanac.

Anderson is delusional, but doesn't meet the requirements to be considered a threat to herself or others, he said.

He defended Dixon's decision to send her by taxi to another jurisdiction.

"This is what she wanted at the time," Bertini said. "She's a functional adult. We can't force her to go anywhere."

Menlo Park isn't alone in seeking to send the unhoused to other cities. Many cities have formal busing programs for homeless people to offer individuals one-way tickets to their hometowns or other places they have a network upon which they can rely for support. These programs are generally more common in larger cities and have experienced mixed outcomes.

The New York Times recently reported that among those who have used San Francisco's "Homeward Bound" transportation program, about one in eight recipients had returned and sought homeless services again in the city within a year of the travel ticket being used.

In general, these programs have rules that the person or agency who provides the transportation service for homeless people pursue some degree of due diligence to ensure that they will be met on the other end of their journey with some kind of support network from family, friends, or social services. That didn't happen here.

When asked why not, Bertini said the police department didn't follow those practices because Menlo Park doesn't have a busing program.

Instead, he explained, Menlo Park has a "boutique approach" to homelessness in which Dixon, the police department's lead officer for interacting with the homeless, knows the few unhoused people in the city by name and knows their stories and problems.

That approach — and the permissibility of using city funds to send unhoused people to other jurisdictions — appears not to be specifically codified in the written language guiding the department's approach to homelessness, considering the police department's policies surrounding interactions with homeless people in its procedure manual. On the topic of assisting homeless people, it states, "Officers may contact the homeless for purposes of rendering aid, support and for community-oriented policing purposes," and adds, "Officers may provide homeless persons with resource and assistance information whenever it is reasonably apparent that such services may be appropriate."

"This is a societal issue," Bertini said. "Again, it's unfair that the police department gets saddled with it. Whenever there's a problem that can't be solved, it ends up in the police department's lap. ... Until ... some other solutions come to light, we're going to have to do this one-off boutique approach to dealing with these folks."

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