Alex Burg conveys the power of connections in his uniquely positioned perspective on the homeless population.
We sat down with Alex Burg, a neighborhood resource officer, to better understand his work with the homeless population in the downtown area. “I've been a police officer for the last seven and a half years. For the last four and a half years, I've been the downtown neighborhood resource officer. First of all, having a neighborhood resource officer program is a very rare thing within police departments. We are very blessed to have that in our area. Our neighborhood resource officer program started in 2013 with two officers in one neighborhood, and expanded to ten officers in multiple neighborhoods. We respond to calls, but we are not 100% controlled by people calling in…
We are a long term program. Patrol responds to a call, puts a band-aid on the problem, and rushes to the next problem. We try to get very involved in the neighborhoods we serve. All the neighborhood officers are engaged with their neighborhood boards. I try to know everybody in my neighborhood. Having that familiarity makes the public more likely to report things. They send a text or a call to my work cell phone and all of a sudden, I am able to put more things together. They are not calling the dispatch phone tree. It eliminates the unknown, they know me. We develop a close-knit relationship with the community and build trust. Our goal is to be responsive to the community needs and that's truly what law enforcement is about. It's been a great thing for me personally to be in this position.”
Before his current position, Alex worked as a patrol officer where he met members of the homeless population in the local area. “I was originally assigned to the night shift in the downtown area for three years. There was a lot of patrolling the parking ramps. I got to know the homeless population very well by being in the parking ramps at night and interacting with them. When I became the downtown neighborhood resource officer, that momentum carried into my daytime work. I learned all the resources and what the different organizations are trying to do to help the population. I'm part of the Coulee Collaborative to End Homelessness. In my position with the community I need to have my finger on the pulse of everything going on.”
Alex shared his perspective of the deeply rooted issues within the homeless community and some changes needed in the local area. “Many people are homeless because of alcohol addiction, drug addiction, and mental health… We need an inpatient detox center. The emergency rooms are not an actual detox center. When I talk to alcoholics in the park, a lot of them have to go get alcohol everyday. A lot of them say that they do not want to have to do this, but they don't have a choice. If they don't drink every day, they will detox on the streets which is very dangerous. You could easily die from it, but you can't just walk into the hospital and say ‘I'm an alcoholic. I'm going to quit drinking today and I want to be under care.’ They are not going to admit you into the hospital unless you are already going through a detox. Then, it's too late for you to get to the hospital. A lot of these people don't have phones, so the fear of having to detox out in public without medical care, causes people to just continue drinking every day. They're fearful of detoxing in public because they don't want to die. If we had a detox center people would be able to think clearer. Then they're able to make better decisions, but when they are always in that clouded headspace, they can never get there. For the drug addiction we need to have inpatient treatment. If you are addicted to meth or heroin, you’re homeless, and you don't have money or insurance, where are you going to go? Outpatient treatment is when you go to speak with a doctor and then you have another appointment in two weeks. You're going to go out on the street. You're going to be surrounded by people using drugs and go right down the same path. They're not going to remember they have another appointment. There's no progress. When people are addicted to drugs, they don't care about tomorrow. When they wake up, the only thing they think about is what do I need to do to get high today? So people are stealing bikes and trading it for meth or heroin. Some of them get arrested, they get criminal records and they do get clean, but then there's no landlords that will rent to them."
The challenges of finding the resources one needs for survival on the streets presents several obstacles and these difficulties continue once people are housed. “The biggest issue when people get housing is the other people they were in the park with for the last two years. The people getting housed let them [the homeless from the park] into their apartment, but their friends may not have the same drive to improve their situation as the person that got the apartment. Their friends bring in drugs or alcohol and the person that was trying to better themselves collapses under the social pressure. If they get evicted, it's impossible to get another place. It's really hard to find landlords that are willing to work with homeless people. It's really sad because there's programs and money in place to get these people housing, but then they can't even find a place to stay. It's hard to re-energize yourself with empathy for that person that has fallen off the wagon and ended up back on the streets.”
When responding to what keeps him coming back to his job day after day, Officer Burg shared his deep desire to help others and attempt to be a voice of reason in trying times. “In the most basic terms, I just try to help people. Everybody knows somebody or has a distant family member that has addiction issues. I understand that it's more than just the person you see on the street. It's the whole family. The family has so much money and time and heartache invested in the situation. There are no simple solutions. No other people in this community have more contacts or knowledge about the homeless population. I know every single one of them. Their full names, dates of birth, where they're from, how they ended up here, what led to their homelessness. Nobody is in a better position to connect to that population than us because we are the ones getting called. The biggest thing that we do as a police department is try and make those connections. If somebody steals something from Kwik Trip and they say ‘Oh, I'm homeless. I don't have any food.’ We ask them if they know that they can go to Wafer, the Salvation Army, the Warming Center or if they talked to this person or that person. We try to connect them to every resource available. Ultimately they have to make the decision if they want to engage with those resources. I try to be a resource to people. We have so many resources. We are right there with all of the social workers and want to improve the situation as much as everybody else.”
Alex’s message to the public is one of developing awareness and expressing gratitude. “Homelessness, in general, it's a very complex issue and being downtown. Every single day somebody from the public contacts me regarding the homeless population. I always tell people from the public to try and support the organizations that are supporting the homeless population. I believe resources are better directed to established programs because there is a clear mission. There is an end goal. Ultimately, we really want to thank the community for their continued support of the neighborhood resource officer program and we are doing all that we can.”
Artist’s Note: We work together, that is how change happens. As Officer Burg stated, homelessness is not always as simple as we think. It’s a puzzle and we don’t have all of the pieces yet. It’s a balance between putting a band aid on the problem and getting to the roots of the cycle. Together, we fight for a future.