Officers try to help Reno homeless
December 26, 2002
RENO– Reno police Officer Jeff McCutcheon keeps a particular Christmas card handy near his desk in a small office at downtown Reno’s Greyhound bus station.
McCutcheon likes to read it after difficult moments, and they come often as he and Washoe County sheriff’s Deputy Jim Cox run the Homeless Evaluation Liaison Program — better known as HELP.
A woman came into the office for assistance recently, said her name is Joan, grew agitated and ended up yelling at McCutcheon and Cox.
That was when he pulled out the Christmas card, which in handwriting reads: “Simply wanted to wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas this year and to thank you once again — with all sincerity for pretty much giving me enough encouragement to give life another roll.”
McCutcheon received the card this holiday season from a man he’d found in May, homeless and huddled under a Truckee River bridge. The man, wrapped in a cheap blanket, had been drinking. He yelled at McCutcheon.
“He said he didn’t want to live anymore,” McCutcheon told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
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But the yelling, somehow, became talking.
After three days of on-and-off conversations with McCutcheon in the bus station office, the homeless man agreed to seek help. He entered a treatment program, graduated and got a job.
The next time he came to McCutcheon’s office, he was wearing a suit.
“Those are the ones that bring a little smile to your face,” McCutcheon said. “That’s where you get the satisfaction.”
The HELP program started in 1994 as an economical way for law enforcement to deal with people on the streets with no place to go.
Instead of making arrests for vagrancy, the bus station office was established to help people get from Reno-Sparks to wherever their homes are.
McCutcheon estimates more than 600 people have been assisted this year out of 1,800 interviewed.
The officers try to help everyone, such as the woman named Joan, who showed up in Reno a week before Christmas with no place to stay and no place to go.
“There are a lot of questions I have to ask before I can help you,” McCutcheon tells the woman.
He wants to know the names and telephone numbers of relatives and friends who might provide assistance. Joan protests. McCutcheon overlooks the yelling.
He goes about his practiced routine of asking the woman enough questions to get the names and telephone numbers of relatives and friends.
Joan doesn’t like McCutcheon’s questions, so she asks one of her own.
“Did you take a course in psychology?” she asks, her voice growing louder by the second. “Listen to me! I’m older than you!”
McCutcheon speaks on the phone to someone in Philadelphia that Joan has identified as her brother.
“You know your sister is here trying to get to San Francisco?” McCutcheon asks. “Can you tell me a little bit about what’s going on? Does she receive any income at all?”
McCutcheon hangs up and tells Joan the brother can help, but not for a couple days.
“I have a totally dysfunctional family,” Joan says.
McCutcheon remains calm and manages to contact a friend of the woman’s in Philadelphia, who agrees to provide assistance.
In a couple hours, money is wired to Joan and she’s on her way to San Francisco. McCutcheon doesn’t expect her to send him a Christmas card.
“It takes great patience to do this job,” the officer said.