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Joan Wickersham

The homeless beat

His title is Officer — Officer Eric Helberg of the Cambridge Police Department — but homeless people in Cambridge call him “Eric.” He’s worked with them for the past 10 years, beginning when he walked a beat around Central Square. His fellow officers watched him talking to homeless men and women in a way that gradually built trust in a wary, hard-to-reach group. “Eric was good,” says Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas. “He had an extraordinary skill set.”

Noticing that Eric’s interactions with the homeless were reducing the number of reported problems, the department created a homeless outreach program in 2007, comprised of Eric and another officer, Matt Price.

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Recently I joined Eric on his morning rounds. It was cold and many of Eric’s regular “clients,” as he respectfully calls them, weren’t out yet. But he knew where to look, driving around the city to check on people’s whereabouts and condition.

Outside a bottle-and-can return he stopped to speak to a group of men from Central America. “Que pasa, Eric?” they greeted him. Nobody was drinking, at least not yet; everybody looked fine, except for one whose face was still healing from an assault by another homeless man several weeks earlier.

In Harvard Square Eric stopped to talk to a man and woman. They were worried about another woman who had just gone into rehab: “What’s going to happen when she gets out?” The woman in rehab was a 25-year-old heroin addict. Eric had gotten her into rehab once before and she’d walked out after one night. If she could stick it out this time, he would work to get her into transitional housing afterward. “What’s hardest is people who are in couples,” he told me. “One gets clean, but then comes out of rehab and the other person is still using.”

Eric is also a realist about the devastating impact of alcohol. “It’s the easiest drug to get, and the most destructive.” Sometimes his work is simply to transport an intoxicated person to a shelter. “I can tell when someone is really sick, or just needs to sleep.” Such vigilance helps to avert bigger problems — fights, people passing out on the street — and to avoid unnecessary hospitalizations. “Not that it’s just about cost, but why be wasteful?”

Simple changes can make a big difference. Eric pointed to some benches along the sidewalk. “We used to get a lot of calls about disruptive large groups, so in the last few years we’ve reconfigured the city’s benches to discourage large groups from congregating.”

More driving around, more conversations. A woman said she couldn’t get a place at a shelter the day before. “Are you sure?” Eric asked. “They’re not supposed to turn anyone away.” But later, stopping at the shelter, he found that because of the cold and the shortage of beds, people were being turned away as early as 2:30 in the afternoon. “The people who live by collecting cans aren’t going to go in that early. They’re out on the street 14 hours sometimes,” he told me. “Their priorities are different. What’s more important, your drinking, your canning, or your safety? They’re not going to answer that question the same way you or I would.”

Eric works closely with social service and medical organizations. “Before we started this, we were islands: EMTs, the shelters, the police. We all took care of the same people, but no one talked. Now we’re a network of community services.”

A radio call: an “unwanted person” in a café. Eric went inside, and came out holding a water bottle, accompanied by a thin man in a loose, shabby parka. They talked and the man ambled away. “He’d fallen asleep at a table,” Eric said, uncapping the water bottle and passing it to me to sniff. Vodka.

Getting people off the streets — into treatment, into housing — solves a lot of problems, both for homeless people and for the city. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. The goal of the Cambridge program, according to Police Superintendent Steven Williams, “isn’t to end homelessness. That would be unrealistic. The homeless are part of the fabric of any city. But with Eric’s and Matt’s help we can minimize the impact.”

As we drove around, Eric told me some of the success stories that have meant the most to him. Several families were reunited when distraught parents called him about missing teenagers, whom he recognized from the descriptions and was able to talk into returning home. And there was a 14-year-old boy trying to track down a father whom, again, Eric knew.

“I took the son to see his father in a shelter, and the father broke down. Less than a week later he went home and has been sober ever since. He has a job. I keep up with him on Facebook.”

Homelessness isn’t magically fixable. But patiently getting to know the people on the street seems to help disastrous circumstances from becoming an even bigger disaster. If watching Eric work is a lesson in realism, it is also a lesson in hope.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’
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