HOUSTON - Just beyond a 3-foot wide hole is world few in Houston realize exists and even fewer have seen. This world exists in the shadow of downtown's skyline and acts as a rocky domain for some of Houston's homeless.
"These are the caves," Houston Police Officer Jaime Giraldo said as he led Local 2 Investigates to a spot just under the part of Louisiana Street that is a bridge spanning Buffalo Bayou.
The space isn't tall enough for a person to stand-up, but spreads like a web into the underground darkness. The beam of our flashlight moved over trash, clothes, and sleeping bags.
"How far back does this go?" asked Local 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
"Well, it snakes. It goes all along the bridge area," said Sergeant Stephen Wick. "We've had whole families in here."
Wick, Giraldo, and Officer Janice Terry are members of HPD's Homeless Outreach Team. The department's initiative started in January of 2011 and these officers are helping pioneer the way law enforcement interacts with the homeless community.
"A person that is living on the streets can't afford to pay a ticket," said Wick. "If we can get them off the street, they won't be committing all the things that they get complained on and written tickets for."
The goal of this team is not to simply corral members of the homeless population into shelters, but to help those living on the streets find a permanent home.
"Pretty amazing to see somebody who has been homeless for years open the door to their new apartment," said Giraldo. "That does it for me."
Everyday, this team cruises the streets of Houston in a specially equipped van and on a bicycle; trying to connect with those who live on the sidewalks, under bridges or in homeless camps near the freeway.
In the first two months of this year, members of this team made contact and offered help to 285 people, found housing for 18 people, and conducted follow up visits with 86 people they helped get off the streets.
Even after finding a person a place to live, these officers work to make sure these individuals have at least some creature comforts, like batteries for a remote control or a working television
"That's what we do to try to make sure our clients have some normalcy with their lives," said Terry.
To show how this initiative is working, officers introduced us to Daniel Smith, a deaf man who officers said was a constant victim while living on the street. Communicating with written word and perseverance, officers got Smith into his apartment and check in on him regularly to make sure he is doing well.
KPRC Local 2 also spoke with Richard Stickle. Officers found Stickle living under a bridge and were able to get him his own room at the DeGeorge in downtown.
"Them two and their partner treat people like human beings," said Stickle. "They put a good name to that uniform."
One of the most difficult parts of this work is getting identification for those who are homeless. Giraldo said without ID, it is extremely hard for a homeless person to access permanent housing or needed benefits.
To help overcome this hurdle, the team uses a wireless fingerprint device to establish a person's name and date of birth. From that point, officers work to help a person get their birth certificate, social security card, or drivers license.
"We don't drop these people off at the DPS and say, 'Hey, get your driver's license.' We'll sit there in line with them," said Giraldo. "You're asking somebody who is mentally ill to sit in line, possibly for hours, and it doesn't work."
Wick, Giraldo, and Terry said a key component of this work is gaining the trust of those who live on the streets. Many in the homeless community aren't instantly willing to accept help because of either past run-ins with police, mental illness, or addiction.
"If they don't trust you, then it's very hard to get them to believe you're there to help them," said Wick.
To help foster this trust, the team carries water, food, and clothes for those they find in desperate need of basic necessities.
If nothing else, this team is persistent. Back near the spot officers refer to as the "Caves," Terry spoke with a man by the name of Donnie Sagers as he pet his cat, named Mama.
Sagers lives under a bridge overhang. Sagers was a six year veteran of the Navy and has a culinary arts degree from Houston Community College. He said mango pork chops are his specialty.
"Been here since 2006. Different, you know here and there," said Sagers. "I try to take care of myself out here best I can. I do my praying."
Sagers said alcohol and the death of his mother on Christmas morning several years ago caused a downhill slide in his life. Sagers said he does get seasonal work as a cook and officers check in on him regularly, trying to coax him off the streets.
"People have to be ready," said Giraldo. "I mean, if they're not ready, they won't do anything about it."
Members of the team have also been instrumental in helping solve crimes when detectives in other division have hit dead ends in trying to find a wanted person. Wick said because of the contacts the team has made, they've been able to track down witnesses and suspects in crimes who were either homeless or hiding within the homeless population.
If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477). Copyright 2012 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.