Chet Parker has never met a stranger. His outgoing personality serves him well as Homeless Liaison Officer in the city of Lake Forest, a post he accepted in December 2014. So far, this Orange County (California) Sheriff’s deputy has helped more than four dozen people get off the streets and is working to help a dozen more at any given time.
Since NBC4 News in Los Angeles covered the HLO program in March 2017, Parker says his phone has been ringing like crazy with calls from people wanting to know how to start their own programs. He’s grateful for the interest and eager to spread the word.
After all, Parker says, he became a cop to try to make a difference. In this job, that’s his primary mission every day.
“In the last two or three years, I’ve probably helped more people than I have in my entire career,” he said.
A seasoned deputy, Parker did not seek the job. He was recruited by OCSD Lt. Brad Valentine, who serves as the city’s police chief. Valentine attended the academy with Parker and knew that his colleague’s personality made him the perfect candidate to grow the HLO program.
“He’s got the gift of gab. He can walk up to a complete stranger and have an hour-long conversation about anything,” said Valentine. “He’s just got that uncanny ability to make people feel at ease and develop rapport.”
CALLED TO SERVE
Parker was hooked immediately. The first people he helped were a couple and their young son living in a car. He found out the woman had served in the military, and things quickly fell into place because of the services available for veterans.
“I couldn’t believe it was that simple,” he said. “We literally had them off the street by the end of the week.”
A former Marine himself, Parker makes a point of talking to anyone wearing a veteran hat. Between the VA and myriad other service organizations, he says it’s easy to find help for vets.
“They deserve every single thing that we can give them, so if there’s a veteran, I will stop at nothing to get them off the streets,” he said.
Much of what Parker does is build relationships with people and then help connect them with organizations that can provide housing, job training or treatment. He asks if they are ready to make a change, then finds the right fit for their needs – whether it’s a detox program or something as simple as a haircut, a load of laundry or fixing a flat tire.
“I’m 90 percent social worker and 10 percent police officer at this late stage of my career, and it seems to work pretty well,” he said. “I just let them know that their past is their past, and if they’re willing to change something in their future, I would love to help them out.”
And Parker follows up, especially with the folks in treatment programs, says Valentine.
“He’s not just putting them in a cab or handing them off to a third party. He’s seeing it all the way through, and I think that’s what makes a difference,” said Valentine. “He also calls these people and asks how they’re doing, and he’ll give them some encouragement to stick it out. It’s the genuine compassion he has that has made the program so successful.”
Parker quickly figured out that many of the people living on the streets lacked ID, which prevented them from gaining access to the services they needed, so he enlisted the help of the manager at the local DMV. The office opens early and privately on certain days so that Parker can bring people, many of whom have social anxiety issues, to get their IDs when it’s quiet.
He provides forms for people to get discounted or free ID cards, and the city keeps a P.O. box to provide them with an address. When the cards arrive, Parker takes a picture for each person’s file and delivers the cards.
“The IDs are a huge thing because it opens so many doors,” he said. “Now they’re in line for food stamps or health services or even housing now that they’ve been established as a citizen of Lake Forest or a citizen of the county – or a citizen of the state or the country, for that matter. I’m so thankful to those guys at the DMV.”
BRIDGING THE FINANCIAL GAP
Parker is quick to remind people that homelessness can happen to anyone. Most people he encounters aren’t on drugs or mentally ill; they just fell on hard times financially.
Not only does the HLO program help these individuals rebuild their lives, says Parker, but the program can also save the city and county potentially tens of thousands of dollars. A study conducted in 2016 by the University of California at Irvine found that homelessness in Orange County “is caused primarily by lack of sufficient income or job loss, combined with the high costs of housing in Orange County.” The study concludes that $42 million a year would be saved by placing people who chronically live on the streets into housing.
Parker says it’s easy to help these folks if you can just make the connections.
“People don’t know what’s out there,” to help, he said. “When you can just point them in the right direction, it’s so easy, and it’s just communication.”
PERSISTENCE IS KEY
Parker starts his day at 5 a.m. with a pre-dawn visit to the Wal-Mart parking lot to look for people sleeping in their cars. He knocks on windows to say hello or give an update, then at daybreak, he makes his regular rounds to check on the chronically homeless folks living on the streets.
He asks only two things of the people he serves: Be honest and show up when you say you will.
“They always have to tell me the truth, no matter how down and dirty it is,” he said. “The second thing is they always have to follow through with what they agree to do.”
The latter takes some patience. But Parker doesn’t give up. He meets with individuals until something sticks, working to gain their trust, sometimes breaking the ice with a fresh pair of socks or a gift card for a hamburger.
“Something as simple as a pair of socks or a bottle of water or one of those silly $5 gift cards opens doors,” he said. “You can’t discount the human touch.”
Parker keeps two 4-inch binders in his squad, one full of gift cards for restaurants, the other filled with flyers for shelters, veterans services, medical resources, food banks and other organizations he works with regularly.
One of the biggest challenges, he says, is finding housing for men who are homeless but don’t have any other problems. Local charity organizations are geared toward families, substance abuse, domestic violence, and other specific issues.
“Everybody has their own little niche, but there’s not a niche for normal guys who are just down on their luck,” he said.
Another challenge is pride – and its flipside, low self-esteem. Many people are reluctant to admit they need help; others don’t believe they deserve it.
“Self-esteem is a huge issue out there. It’s unbelievable how many people don’t think they’re worth helping,” said Parker. But he is undeterred.
“You can’t give up on them. If you do, then their incorrect notions of not being worthwhile come to life,” he said. “Everybody’s worth a second chance, or third or fourth or fifth chance. Why not?”
‘IT JUST TAKES A LITTLE BIT OF HARD WORK’
The HLO program is a work in progress, says Parker, and it requires a lot of patience, persistence and a little creativity, but he loves the job and would like to help other agencies develop similar efforts before he retires.
“I tell people every single person, no matter what’s going on, can become homeless,” he said. “If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, just like most of us do out here, it only takes one or two things – a health issue or a broken down car issue – and now you’ve landed yourself in your car and you’re trying to figure out a way to get back on your feet.”
It can be heartbreaking, he says, but at the same time, “It’s not anything that can’t be overcome. It just takes a little bit of hard work.”