SLO's efforts to help chronic offenders appear to be working

acornejo@thetribunenews.comApril 14, 2014 

Ben Schaeffer was stumbling out of Foster’s Freeze in downtown San Luis Obispo, in the midst of another drunken binge, when his life changed.

Police Officer Jim Fellows was there, waiting with an offer.

“He asked me if I would be interested in getting sober,” Shaeffer said.

Schaeffer had been living on the streets for more than two years. He’d been an alcoholic for 24 years.

His answer was yes, and he is now living in a sober living house in Pismo Beach and has gone more than three months without a drink.

The encounter between Schaeffer and Fellows wasn’t happenstance. Fellows and his partner Jeremy Behrens are part of the San Luis Obispo Police Department’s Community Action Team that has been working the streets in downtown San Luis Obispo for the last nine months.

They patrol the area four days a week, working directly with transients and other repeat offenders who have been overlooked for years.

The effort appears to be working. Three of the top 10 chronic offenders who constantly consume police resources are now in sober living environments.

Schaeffer, one of them, is now facing another battle. Shortly after getting sober he was diagnosed with throat and mouth cancer. He will begin radiation and chemotherapy treatments this week.

“These guys probably saved my life … if I beat this cancer,” said Schaeffer. “I probably would have never known about it. If it weren’t for them, I’d still be drinking on the streets thinking I just had a sore throat.”

Community impacts

Schaeffer, who had been in and out of the emergency room and the San Luis Obispo County Jail for years, was ready to make a lifestyle change. But not all are.

Police Chief Steve Gesell is tackling the problem with a holistic approach — coordinating a multi-agency effort to limit the impacts of repeat offenders on the community but also find help for those who are willing.

“People don’t have a broad understanding of what the impacts are in the community,” said Gesell. “The impacts are the legal system, and healthcare costs are astounding.”

The city’s top 10 repeat offenders have led to more than $1 million in write-offs by Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.

“Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center and Twin Cities Community Hospital annually serve as San Luis Obispo’s safety net hospitals by providing the highest level of indigent care despite not having nonprofit status,” said Ron Yukelson, spokesman for Sierra Vista. “We applaud the San Luis Obispo Police Department for its efforts to assist these individuals to find permanent solutions to their current living and lifestyle situations. We are, and will be, a stronger community for it.”

Many of the habitual offenders, most of them homeless, exacerbate their already poor health by drinking. They are routinely in and out of emergency rooms.

Gesell was downtown one day several months ago having a cup of coffee when a medical call came through dispatch for a man nearby.

“It was a cold, cold morning. And there was a man, laying in the fetal position next to a bench,” said Gesell. “It was Ben. Next to him was a bottle of vodka, drained with only a little left in it. He had a contusion on his head and was only semi-conscious.”

Schaeffer was transported to the hospital by ambulance. After he got out he spent time in county jail and then was back in the emergency room not expected to live, said Gesell.

“Ultimately, he survived,” Gesell said. “The Community Action Team got involved and he later became one of our short-term success stories. None of us thought it would happen this fast.”

City efforts underway

The biggest hurdle is changing the culture and moving San Luis Obispo away from being known as an enabling city, said Gesell. The city will soon launch a directed giving campaign to discourage panhandling.

Seven parking meters will be installed at various locations to accept change and credit-card donations throughout the downtown area.

That money will then be given to the United Way to be spent on programs that work directly to transition people out of homelessness in San Luis Obispo.

Similar programs exist in Laguna Beach and San Diego.

Other efforts underway include asking downtown liquor stores to take cheap malt liquors and cheap vodkas off the shelves completely, so that they aren’t available to purchase.

So far, no businesses have agreed.

One recent afternoon Fellows and Behrens visited the sober living house operated by the Coastal Recovery Project in Pismo Beach where Schaeffer is living.

Another longtime downtown transient, Don Shea, is also now living there.

Both Schaeffer and Shea gladly chit-chatted with the police officers about their progress but also inquired about the friends they had left behind on the streets.

“We were always running into these guys,” said Shea. “They were always honest with me and they did their job. They were the first people in a long time to say: You are better than this.”

Shea had been homeless for 20 years. It is his first time in a recovery program.

“The more that drinking took a priority for me, the more it mattered less to me to regain society,” he said. “For a long time I was a member of a different society."

He’d go to jail long enough to detox and then start drinking again once he was released. “How could I tell myself not to drink? Compared to everything else it seemed easy,” Shea said.

But ailing health eventually led him to decide that if help were offered, he would accept it.

Both Shea and Schaeffer say they are grateful for the police officers’ intervention. And when they saw them last week, they thanked them.

“You have a good heart,” Fellows told Schaeffer.

Schaeffer knows that there is a long road ahead both in sobriety and in the battle against the advanced cancer that riddles his body.

“I’ve beat a lot of things in my life,” he said. “I think I’ll beat this too.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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