Early on a September afternoon, Santa Clara police officers Carlo Calupad and RJ Otico met Leonard Hodan, who was homeless, at Civic Center Park. By 3 p.m., Hodan had a place to stay, new clothes, a replacement for his lost phone was on the way and he had a stylish haircut.
It’s all in a day’s work for Santa Clara Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Specialist (CIS) team — right down to little things like haircuts.
For many, small setbacks can snowball into homelessness quickly. Hodan became homeless when his landlord abruptly sold the building and canceled his lease.
The Iraq War veteran was homeless for four months, and during that time he lost his phone and his connections to VA services.
“Here is somebody who served his country and he fell through the cracks,” said Otico. “It can happen to many veterans without anybody close by.”
“I didn’t have any money for a new apartment,” said Hodan. “I didn’t know where I was going to stay. I don’t know where the soup kitchen is. I don’t know where to get fresh clothes. I stayed to myself because I don’t want to cause any problems.”
The officers learned that Hodan’s mother in Arizona reported him missing when he suddenly stopped calling her. Otico called the man’s mother, reassuring her that Hodan was OK. While the county’s Community Mobile Response team reconnected Hodan with housing and VA services, barber Gagjeet Sidhu on Franklin Street gave him a haircut and a shave.
Otico met Sidhu two years ago.
“He wanted to give back to the community and told me ‘if you come across someone who needs a haircut, I’d like to give them one,’” said Otico. “When you look good, you feel good. It’s the beginning of getting back.”
Sidhu has experience. Before the Raiders moved to Las Vegas, he was the team’s barber.
“People don’t remember you for what you say, they remember you by how you made them feel,” said Sidhu. “As a barber, I can change people’s lives; how they feel about themselves. A haircut has a lot to do with change. [For Hodan] it was 30 minutes to make someone feel good. He looks like a whole different person.”
“I really like this haircut,” said Hodan. “It’s the way I like to look. Having been in the military, I know it’s important to look sharp.”
Santa Clara’s Pioneering Crisis Intervention Team
Hodan’s story is just one example of the work the Crisis Intervention Team team does every day.
“As a patrol officer, I would run into people with drug problems, who were homeless on the street,” Otico said. “But I lacked the relationships to complete the link to connect them with services.”
When the opportunity came to work in SCPD’s newly formed Community Response Team (CRT) in 2020 — one of the first of its kind — he jumped on it.
“People want to see better responses for those experiencing crisis,” said Otico. “The focus is to ‘develop’ the police, not ‘defund’ the police. We recognized the need to respond better. We need to be able to operate outside the police department to collaborate with social workers and clinicians.
“There’s a reason we have an unmarked car and don’t wear uniforms,” he continued. “After all, what do you think when you see a police car?”
“We’re not trying to penalize people, we’re offering help,” said Calupad. “We can’t force people to accept help, but they know we are here. We partner with other agencies so if there’s a problem, we can get the person who can help right there.”
The team immediately made an impact with a new mental health incident disposition code to guide department policies and staffing.
The team deals with all kinds of crises. On any given day they can be working with someone who’s threatening suicide, a caller who believes there are spies in their apartment and a homeless person living in front of a library. Another CRT program, the Special Needs Awareness Program (SNAP), trains officers to respond appropriately to crisis situations involving people with disabilities.
“People question why police officers should be called in these situations in the first place,” said Otico. “But the reality is that these situations demand more than clinicians are equipped for.
“For example, someone cutting themselves with a knife isn’t committing a crime,” he continued. “But you can’t expect clinicians to put themselves into a situation where someone has a weapon. It defaults to law enforcement. We have the training, we have the tools, we have the authority to deal with a person holding a knife. We can render the scene safe and that’s when mental health professionals can work.”
Building trust is the first thing, says Otico, and the key is listening to people’s own version of their story.
“Then I can go to work and say, ‘it seems like you’re afraid’ to the person who believes spies in their apartment,” said Otico. “Because I listen to you, you feel understood and we can start problem-solving.”
Santa Clara Police Department’s homelessness response website, SantaClaraCA.gov/HomelessResponse, provides information and resources for residents and the homeless. In January 2022, SCPD won the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Community Policing Service’s (COPS) Community Policing in Action photography contest.