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A Cop Who Cares
Published in the October 2002 issue of Hope Magazine

Homeless people with mental illness are often punished for "nuisance crimes" they can't help committing. But Officer Joel Fay knows how to help them get their lives on track.

IT'S NOT WHAT YOU'D EXPECT to hear on the streets, but ask around: many of San Rafael's homeless people will say that the only trouble with police officer Joel Fay is that there aren't more like him. As the San Rafael Police Department's (SRPD) liaison to the homeless who are mentally ill, this man in blue is an ally and advocate for one of society's most disdained, overlooked, and underserved groups.

Fay has been applying his doctorate in psychology on the streets since 1999, working to get this California city's homeless out of jail and into housing, psychiatric treatment, and other community services. His job is hard to pin downÑhe's part cop, part social worker; part detective, part friend. On a given day, he might do a "welfare check" to see if a man is taking his medication, escort someone to a doctor's appointment, visit the Mill Street Center for the homeless to discuss a new client, and stop in St. Vincent's to find out what happened to a woman with a new black eye. Other days may be spent on a single dispatch. One day after September 11, for example, Fay was called in to diffuse the delusions of a man convinced that terrorists had planted a nuclear bomb in his brain.

The SRPD's Mental Health Liaison program, launched by Fay, disavows the traditional police approach of throwing mentally ill offenders in jail and hoping they learn their lessons. Nearly one out of five inmates in local jails reports mental health problems, ill, though less than half of those receive treatment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. "When you're mentally ill, you don't get the connection between crime and punishment.How can we possibly expect them to stop committing crimes?" Fay asks. The first, and perhaps most challenging, step to helping them out of the law enforcement loop is making human contact.

"The homeless mentally ill are hard to reach," says Howard Richcreek, Marin chapter co-president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, an advocacy organization for the mentally ill and their families. "My own daughter, who has a schizoaffective disorder, often won't talk to us about her illnessÉ. Joel has the training and compassion to understand problems [faced by the homeless mentally ill] and know how to approach them."

JACK,* ONCE HOMELESS, keeps a ten-year-old ID card in his wallet, a portrait of a filthy, wild-haired, and crazy-eyed man, to remind him how far he's come. He camped out a block away from the San Rafael police station for nearly twenty years. Fay spent months just trying to strike up a conversation with Jack, who was so unable to care for himself his feet were rotting. Over time, Fay learned how paranoid schizophrenia had pre-empted Jack's life as a college student and eventually forced him to leave a career in advertising.

After nearly two decades of homelessness and isolation, Jack now has a home, a girlfriend, and a volunteer position with the Marin Civic Center, where he used to be considered a nuisance. It all started with a persistent but gentle offer from Fay to take a shower. The officer took Jack to Ritter House, where homeless people can shower, receive mail, do laundry, and get help with everything from jobs to health care. With support from Ritter House staff, Fay persuaded Jack to take medication, telling him that it would help his ailing feetÑand toward that end, a volunteer changed his socks, washed his feet, and massaged ointment into them daily. Over the next year, Fay worked to set Jack up with transitional housing, medical care, therapy, and eventually a permanent home.

"Some healthy part of him recognized that I wanted to help him," says Fay. "Jack changed how I view mentally ill homeless people, because he was the first person whose story I really got to know. I saw that it could have been me," he says.

He has since helped brighten the story lines of dozens of lives. There's Jeanie, who spent her final days reconnecting with her sister rather than dying anonymously in the bushes, as she might have if Fay hadn't found her. A man who at San Quentin had burned a hole in his own arm to prove how "bad" he was is now out of prison and, with Fay's help, off drugs, and in school. One former high school valedictorian camped out on San Rafael Hill for eleven years, in denial of his schizophrenia. Fay helped get the man into a crisis unit to stabilize him on medication; he now is in assisted living and has reunited with his family.

Most of these people wouldn't normally trust their lives to a social worker, let alone a cop. Yes, Fay wears the uniform, and his pistol is loaded, but he's also gentle, soft-spoken, and a patient listenerÑqualities that will disarm most anyone. Most of all, it's his persistence and consistency: he appears every day and shows that he cares; he does what he promises, and many people on the street don't often experience that.

"As a rule, I don't trust anybody, but I respect Joel," says Andy, who says he lost his home after an officer illegally searched it and arrested him. "[Joel] tries to reroute people from jail and keep them out of the vicious cycle, and it's a great thing. If someone complains to the cops about us [homeless people], whether it's true or not, we get hit for it. We are very vulnerable; that's why we don't like to put ourselves out there. Joel is more on our wavelength."

"Joel's one of the most compassionate people that I knowÑhe's aces," says Eric, shouting over the lunchtime hubbub at St. Vincent's dining hall, which serves 300 free meals a day. Fay negotiated with him after Eric refused to move his camp from City Hall's lawn; on another occasion, he got Eric treatment when a car knocked him off his bicycle.Ê "He tries to facilitate between insanity -- those people walking around the streets wounded from Reagan's cuts -- and the powers that be," Eric says.

Fay tries to engage with people however he can. Sometimes it's bringing them food or clothing; often it's just spending a few hours talking with them over coffee. Other times he wields clout to get the job done. This may mean issuing a court order, hospitalizing or jailing individuals, or controlling their supplemental security income (SSI) with help from the public guardian's office, other mental health professionals, or an organization that has representative payee status with SSI offices. These are last-resort tactics, however, generally only used long enough to get them into treatment. "You have to find the middle ground," says Fay, "between the rules and the compassion."

FAY HAD DREAMED of becoming a cop since he was a young boy, though he never imagined it would lead him to earn a doctorate in psychology and create a new beat. After attending police academy in 1975, Fay joined the Rampart division of the Los Angeles Police Department, an infamously corrupt and cynical squad.

"First you catch a lot of bad guys, and that's a lot of fun, because you get to go fast and do cool things," says Fay. "But as you mature in your career, you see the same people over and over again, and you start getting frustrated. You work really hard, you risk your life, your personal relationships are hurting, you see these people get off on probation, and you start thinking, What's the point? You can either wallow in that, which I did for a while, or try something different."

Fay left L.A. in 1987 for the well-to-do town of San Rafael, just north of San Francisco, where he slowly began to realize that being a cop had "much more to do with psychology than shooting." Fay worked nights in order to attend daytime classes at the American School of Professional Psychology in Point Richmond, California, where he received a Psy.D. in 1999. His greatest lesson was in "systems theory," or learning to see an individual as inextricably linked to his or her environment. "When people look at the homeless mentally ill, they say, there's a problem, now go ahead and 'fix' them," says Fay. "I saw that I needed to fix the system rather than fixing people."

WHEN FAY CAME on the scene, San Rafael's itinerants, merchants, and cops were in a deadlock. The city's homeless hang-outs, including Ritter House and St. Vincent's dining hall, are clustered downtown, with encampments nearby in the hills and under freeways. Downtown businesses, already in an economic slump, weren't pleased with with the record numbers of homeless darkening their doorsteps. Flooded with complaints, the SRPD frequently arrested street people for nonviolent "nuisance crimes," according to Fay.

The station knew that a substantial number of the homeless are mentally ill -- Fay estimates two thirds -- and that, lacking proper treatment, most self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs. "Some of them were generating literally hundreds of calls for service every year. We had no solutions," says Mike Cronin, who is now the city's chief of police. Cronin also saw that the problem wasn't so much a shortage of service providers for the mentally ill homeless as a difficulty connecting the two. Cronin recognized Fay's unusual blend of experience and training and asked him to be the missing link.

Through success stories like Jack's, Fay was able to show that it was smarter to help keep people out of jail than put them in. "Cops are a cynical lot, and we have had our share of the 'plan du jour' to solve one problem or another," says Cronin. "Many of them are troubled by the homeless, frustrated about our lack of options and society's seeming indifference, and resentful that the problem gets dumped on them. Joel makes a lot of that go awayÑhe gets results."

MANY HEARTS AND MINDS have helped Fay achieve those results. The officer quickly realized that he couldn't help even one person on his own; each client had so many different needs -- from mental health, medical, and dental care, to places to shower, sleep, and eat -- that he had to keep expanding his network. His realization catalyzed a loose collaboration that has evolved into a countywide Forensic Multidisciplinary Team, involving more than twenty-five mental health, homeless advocacy, and law enforcement agencies, including representatives from the district attorney, probation, public defender, and sheriff's offices.

The team meets monthly to brainstorm tactics and develop treatment plans for helping mentally ill offenders. With each new client, the first thing they discuss is the person's life and what brought them to homelessness. "Instead of listening to some clinical picture of a paranoid schizophrenic who is resistant to treatment, we talk about dreams, goals, and accomplishments. That really changes how you view a person," says Fay. Connie Borges, services coordinator for Ritter House and the forensic team's case manager, was skeptical at first that the officers would all take part in the multidisciplinary approach. "The police used to either arrest [the mentally ill offenders] or, if they were lucky, take them to the psych ward," says Borges, who has worked with San Rafael's homeless for over ten years. "Now if someone's having a problem, the officers will call Joel or me and bring it up in a meeting."

That's no small miracle. Previously, the homeless shelter wouldn't even tell Fay who was staying there; now he's almost considered part of the staff. Creativity, compassion, and persistence drive the forensic team's work. Their mantra is "Never give up"; no client leaves the team's roster until they have made the transition into the appropriate services, even if it takes months or years. Still, no one on the team is immune to frustration and hopelessness, says Fay, especially when every approach they take with an individual seems to be a dead end. "In those cases, I try to be the carrier of hope that change is possible. I haven't always had that outlook -- I think it comes from seeing so many 'hopeless' cases turn around, from watching someone 'get it' just when you think there's no way you're going to succeed," he says. "There's something inherent in the human spirit to recover."

THREE YEARS AFTER JACK first met Fay, he and dozens of San Rafael's other formerly homeless people have settled into homes, jobs, and health care. Service calls about the mentally ill homeless have dwindled; for those who are arrested, the courts are starting to hand down sentences that emphasize treatment, not punishment. Chief Cronin has already pledged the SRPD to the program for the next fifteen years. With a grant from the Marin Community Foundation, another SRPD officer will head off to graduate school this fall to prepare to take over Fay's beat, as the forty-six-year-old will retire in less than a decade.

While Fay would love to take time to travel the world, he doesn't plan to retire his badge and doctorate. Instead he hopes to spend more time with the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat, which he helped to found. (At present, Fay spends as much as eighty hours a month on the project, in addition to the sixty-hour weeks he regularly puts in with SRPD -- thankfully supported by a very understanding family.) The organization counsels emergency responders suffering effects of on-the-job traumas such as a colleague's death or a suicidal shooting, which Fay himself once witnessed. He says that both the mentally ill homeless and traumatized officers are often functioning at high levels when something shatters their lives. His work is to help them put the pieces back together again.

Though no other police force in the country has anything resembling the Mental Health Liaison program yet, Fay and Cronin have gotten inquiries from as far afield as Australia. Most agree it will take someone with Fay's dedication and fire to make something like the Mental Health Liaison program work elsewhere. "You need to be a visionary," says Borges. "Joel has taught us all to see the next right step for a person and not just where they are right now."


Want to Know More?

Officer Joel Fay, Psy. D.

1400 Fifth Ave.

San Rafael, CA 94901

415-485-5773, ext. 111366#

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