Chico Police Department program reunites homeless with loved ones
While sorting through a grocery bag full of his personal possessions at Chico’s Greyhound bus station, Christopher Grabel produced a sign that read, “Homeless: Please Help, God Bless.”
He paused to consider it for a moment, perhaps reflecting on one of the most difficult periods of his life.
“I don’t think I’ll be needing this anymore,” he said, throwing the sign in a trash can as he waited for his bus to arrive last Monday (June 21).
By now, after about three days and four bus transfers, Grabel should be thousands of miles away in Sterling Heights, Mich., and reconnected with his mother. Thanks to an anonymous $1,000 donation made to the Chico Police Department’s Homeless Evaluation Liaison Program, or H.E.L.P., his ticket was paid for and he was provided with food for the journey home.
“I’m very excited to go back,” he said. “My grandma is 97 years old, and she hasn’t seen me in about five years.”
Grabel is one of the four people the program has lent a helping hand and a fresh start to in the month since its inception.
Three months ago, the 39-year-old long-time butcher left his job at Lucky’s in Martinez, expecting to transfer to Food Maxx in Chico. Grabel says that position “fell through,” and he subsequently became dependent on the woman he was living with. Despite her efforts to conceal a meth addiction, Grabel soon discovered what he considered an intolerable habit.
“She has a messed up back, so I knew she was on pain medications,” he said. “I didn’t understand why she was always so jumpy. She was doing it behind my back.”
Grabel took to the streets rather than live in close proximity to hard drugs. He stayed homeless for roughly 2 1/2 months, spending his days holding his sign on street corners and working odd jobs, and his nights sleeping under bridges and behind businesses.
It was a striking turn of bad fortune for a man who has held a steady job as a meat cutter for years, and has never had an extended period of unemployment in his life.
Eventually, another homeless man introduced him to the Jesus Center, the faith-based nonprofit organization that offers the homeless services, including meals and showers. Grabel saw information about H.E.L.P. mentioned in the local media and expressed interest in it to a supervisor at the center, who then contacted the CPD. Even so, when Officer Bill Dawson of the CPD’s Target Team approached Grabel one day in mid June, he was taken aback.
“I wasn’t expecting a cop to come in wearing a bulletproof vest and gun and ask me if I was Chris Grabel,” he said.
The Target Team, which formed last January to focus on chronic neighborhood problems, is responsible for managing H.E.L.P. Dawson was a part of the original Neighborhood Enforcement Team that operated an identical program six years ago and helped 72 transients reconnect with their families or support groups. Budget cuts forced the CPD to temporarily disband the program, but the department plans to hold fundraisers to keep it going this time around.
Dawson contacted Grabel’s mother, Diane Fluture, in Michigan to make sure she would be welcoming and supportive if her son were to be sent home. While Fluture assured the police officer that her son would be greeted with open arms, that is not always the case in these situations.
“Sometimes the relative doesn’t want them back because they burned some bridges,” Dawson said. “There have been occasions where they have requested to go somewhere but they aren’t wanted.”
Cooperation between the Jesus Center and the CPD is critical to the success of H.E.L.P., said Bill Such, the Jesus Center’s executive director. The Jesus Center often refers homeless individuals who may potentially be a good fit for the program.
The long-standing relationship also benefits the Jesus Center, as center employees may be confronted with situations they aren’t trained for. “If we’ve got somebody who is severely mentally ill, and he’s screaming out in the parking lot, we call the Target Team because they know what to do with the person,” he said. “They already know about him and have made their own assessment. Maybe they respond in a particular way that presumes their mental illness, rather than simply seeing them as a violent person.”
Dawson says police make efforts to ensure they aren’t just sending transients on a bus ride to be homeless in another town, but he also tries to keep a realistic attitude.
“I’m not naïve enough to think that every person we send home is going to become the CEO of a company,” he said. “I’m sure there are some people who go back to being homeless, but we give it a shot. It falls on them to realize they’re getting another chance.”
For his part, Grabel intends to make the most of his second chance. He said he will begin job hunting as soon as he arrives in Sterling Heights.
“It’s an awesome program,” he said of H.E.L.P. “I don’t know what I’d be doing otherwise. Probably standing on the corner outside of Home Depot.”