CHEYENNE — The City of Cheyenne hopes to reduce the problem of homeless and transient people drinking in public by launching a new program to increase coordination among law enforcement, the courts and private shelters, officials announced Wednesday.
Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak announced the start of “Operation HEAT,” which stands for “Homeless Empowerment Action Team.”
Kozak displayed a graph showing that about 75 citations were issued this May for public intoxication, of which more than half were issued to transients. The numbers have more than doubled over the same month a year earlier. He said the HEAT program aims to reduce citations by 30 percent.
Under the new program, Kozak said police procedures will remain the same and officers will still have discretion to issues warnings, write summonses or arrest offenders.
He said the city intends to have better communication with courts and treatment agencies. Offenders who refuse to enroll in treatment won’t be able to get resources, including long-term space in a local homeless shelter, he said.
“Some people prefer to be out there on the street, and prefer to be drinking, and don’t want to become sober and so those people continue to break the law,” Kozak said. “Whether it’s trespassing, panhandling, or threatening people or assaulting people, those people will be held accountable through the court system and will receive enhanced sentences to go to jail. That’s the program.”
Kozak said a recent study found there are more than 500 homeless people in Cheyenne, a city of roughly 60,000. He said police commonly only have contact with about 20 to 30 reoffenders on an ongoing basis.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming says it’s concerned that Operation HEAT promises to do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness but rather will perpetuate the cycle.
“Many cities found that criminalizing homelessness was much more costly than developing long term solutions for society’s most vulnerable, the homeless, who are more often than not mentally ill, disabled or veterans,” Linda Burt executive director of the Wyoming ACLU, said in a written statement.
Cheyenne Mayor Richard L. Kaysen said Wednesday the city is trying to help transients and the homeless. “It’s also a program for our entire community, because when we do have the transients that are causing disturbances, they’re causing problems for our residents. So we’re addressing this on many fronts,” he said.
Kaysen said the program anticipates that people in the legal system will respond by deciding to help themselves. “So if you want to look at it from that standpoint, it is a crackdown,” he said. “For a pure crackdown, if I may, the choices would be leave town or go to jail, and that’s not the objectives of this program.”
Robin Zimmer, executive director at the nonprofit COMEA House shelter in Cheyenne, said the shelter currently has about 70 residents and is near capacity. She said it’s looking for funding to expand operations.
“We’re still giving these folks a choice,” Zimmer said of the program. “They can become law-abiding and live their life the way they want to. They can come to the shelter and get the resources and the help that they need, or they can choose to live in another community. So we’re not forcing them to do anything. We’re not taking away their rights. We’re offering them the choices to make the changes that are necessary in their life.”