Cop Watch: Constable Jodyne Keller keeps an eye on Vancouver's homeless

Constable Jodyne Keller is the Vancouver Police Department's homeless outreach coordinator. Photo by Chris Bevaqua. 

Underneath the Cambie Bridge on a dark, snowy February morning, Constable Jodyne Keller approaches a small encampment of three homeless men. She’s received a complaint that the number of homeless people staying has grown and needs to investigate. Dressed in a dark blue Vancouver Police Department (VPD) uniform, a gun rests at her side. But she isn’t here to arrest anyone or ask them to move along. Instead, she’s here to help them find housing.


“How are you doing?” she asks one of the men after gently nudging him awake.


He’s bundled up in his sleeping bag, tucked beside one of the giant pillars propping up the bridge’s off-ramp. He’s somewhere in his 40s and of middle-eastern descent. The overpass keeps the snow from falling on him, but the cold wind still whips through. A few of his belongings lay neatly beside him.


“Ok,” he responds, seemingly a little stunned to wake up and find a sturdily built, blonde police officer offering her help.


Once she gets his name and information, she sets up a meeting for him at the welfare office and hands him some socks. Now that she’s connected with him, she’ll visit again to see how she can get him on social assistance and into housing—even if that means driving him to his appointments.


“You connect with [homeless people] as often as possible so they know that it’s not just a one-off,” she says. “[You] keep helping them through the process right until they’re housed. And if it takes three years, it takes three years.”


For the past four years Keller has been doing just that—helping the city’s homeless with housing and social assistance forms, giving them socks and blankets or simply letting them know that she’s looking out for them. As the VPD’s homeless outreach coordinator, she’s leading a change in the way the police respond to the city’s growing homeless population.


But as she reaches out to the homeless community, she’s met some resistance from fellow police  officers and homeless advocates. Keller’s challenge is not only to get the homeless off the street, but to also change the way other police officers interact with the homeless community and convince advocates that they’re all on the same side.


Crossing the thin blue line


To get a sense of her work, I asked to do a ride-along with Keller. The Megaphone photographer and I meet her early at the VPD headquarters on Cambie and head out into the city (Keller’s car of choice is an inconspicuous, unmarked Ford Fusion).


Keller starts out by explaining how her position was created. Having worked as the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel liaison in the Downtown Eastside, she became frustrated with her inability in that role to improve people’s living conditions. It was time to take a different approach, she told her superiors.


“I kept seeing the same people in the same flophouses and you start thinking, ‘There’s got to be a better way’,” she says. “We [the police] weren’t addressing the homeless community at all, unless we got a complaint that they’re in the doorway. They are a silent population that causes the police very little trouble, so we didn't engage with them … We didn't know what role we could play, but knew we were missing that opportunity.”


Constable Jodyne Keller speaks with a homeless man in Stanley Park. Photo by Chris Bevacqua. 


So Keller started patrolling the back alleys and parks across the city. Constable Keller, the police officer, essentially became Jodyne, the social worker. Penny Rogers, the contact for Kitsilano’s St. Mark’s Extreme Weather Shelter calls Keller “a blessing” for the area’s homeless. The two worked in getting some of the west side’s homeless into the new 51-unit housing complex in Dunbar. Rogers says having a police officer connect with the homeless helps “builds bridges.”


“I think it’s a wonderful, unique program for the community,” says Rogers. “Someone who is able to access all the services at her fingertips is a wonderful resource and she can go places where other social workers can’t go.”


But others think there are dangers to Keller crossing the thin blue line.


“Homeless people have good reason to fear the police,” says Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver’s housing advocate. “We still hear pretty horrible stories of interactions between police and homeless, police and the very poor … [for example,] moving people on out of areas where they might be safe into areas that they are unsafe and disrespectful contacts.”


Graves does very similar work to Keller and, with over 30 years experience, has earned the tag of the city’s homelessness expert. But while Graves and Keller are officially both city employees, they have very different backgrounds. And that’s what worries Graves.


“I know for the police force as a whole it’s very difficult—it’s a different training, it’s a different approach, it’s a different worldview,” she says. “One of the things homeless people fear most is that their information will be shared with the police and here is a police insisting having their information.”


While Keller says the VPD has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Social Development that protects people’s privacy, the truth is, no matter how conscientious she is, her uniform will be a barrier for many.


“He’s our next Frank Paul”


Keller is now driving us around Kitsilano, looking where she knows homeless people usually are. It brings us to Broadway and Maple where Frank Paul once lived—in cardboard boxes behind the Liquor Store. Paul was a 47-yearold, homeless Aboriginal man and chronic alcoholic. The night he died, December 6, 1998, his unconscious body was dragged out of the police station after a sergeant at the “drunk tank” refused to admit him. He was supposed to be dropped off back at Maple and Broadway, but was instead dumped in the back alley behind a nearby treatment centre. He died of hypothermia.


The eventual inquiry criticized the VPD’s practices and investigation of the death. Police Chief Jim Chu later apologized to Paul’s family for the “mistakes our officers made” and promised reforms. But to many it was a tragic reminder of the discrimination that homeless people, especially Aboriginal people, face at the hands of the police.


When I suggest to Keller that the homeless might have reason to be mistrustful of the police, she’s genuinely baffled.


“Never, ever have I personally seen that,” she says. “I haven’t had anyone say, ‘I don’t trust you, I don’t believe you, you’re full of baloney.’ … If we [the police] knew that [we were intimidating them] we would be working even harder to build that relationship.”


Instead she says it’s the failure of the health care system that puts undue pressure on the police. Keller relays a story about a man she calls “our next Frank Paul”, who is battling severe mental health and addiction issues. He’s in and out of hospitals and jail, but instead of being in an institution, he’s out on the streets, leaving only the police to deal with him.


“If he were to die tomorrow, we would get tagged with it,” she says. “Yet he’s not being helped by any doctors, nobody wants him.”



Constable Jodyne Keller speaks with a homeless man underneath the Cambie Bridge. Photo by Chris Bevacqua. 


The VPD has been quite critical about the breakdown in mental health services, releasing two reports in 2008 and 2010 that showed how expensive and futile it was to have them respond to mental health calls. It has yet, however, to release a report about the city’s homeless crisis.


“She keeps on eye on me”


I’m still trying to process why Keller feels that there’s no mistrust from the homeless toward the police, when we pull up into a back alley off Manitoba Street. There are four middle-aged men hanging out in a small parking space. When Keller approaches, one of them yells, “I’m in!” He’s been accepted into the new social housing building being built at 2nd and Main. Keller helped him with his application.


As the five of them chat around a shopping cart, Keller gets updates on how the others’ applications are going. They haven’t heard back, but Keller will keep checking for them. Off to the side, where she’s out of earshot, the men each sing her praises. Vinny, who’s decked out in a Vancouver Canucks hat and T-shirt, says he “loves having her coming by.”


“She’s a great gal,” he says. “She keeps an eye on me.”


Constable Jodyne Keller speaks with a Vinny, a homeless man who lives in Mount Pleasant. Photo by Chris Bevacqua. 

It’s a pretty incredible scene: four homeless people and a police officer catching up like old friends. These men are grateful for her support and Keller has earned their trust and admiration—enough for them to even tease her a bit.


It’s a scene that’s repeated a few more times throughout the morning. Everywhere from Mount Pleasant to Stanley Park, homeless men and women light up when they see her—happy to get the socks she hands out and comforted to know she’s on their side. But while she’s making genuine connections, some still question her impact.


Crunching the numbers


With a salary of $85,000 a year, plus car and supports, Keller is a well-paid outreach worker. Many other social workers would be happy to make half that, and that has some wondering if it’s the best use of funds. David Eby, the executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), says it’s an “incredibly expensive and inefficient way to deal with homelessness.”


Instead, he’d like to see the VPD advocate for more social housing, much like they’ve done for mental health services.


“When I see the police say this is somehow a proper role of the police, and this is what we’re paying police for, I get quite frustrated,” he says. “Because the police should be with us on the front lines insisting on basic standards of housing, so they’re not out on the streets handing out sleeping bags.”


It’s a complaint echoed by other homeless advocates. Stretched beyond their means, many feel the money would be better spent on improving existing services. When I call Christine Smith, the executive director of the Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Services, she hadn’t even heard of Keller’s position. And she wasn’t too thrilled to find out about it.


“It would have been amazing to see them working in conjunction with our program,” says Smith. “We have just one outreach worker for all of Vancouver. It would have been great to see them figure out who does what in the community first.”


Keller defends her position by saying she’s connecting with a population that isn’t accessing shelters or other outreach workers. And that she has the power to offer a lot more.


“Being the police, I have connections to so many different resources,” she says. “I get pulled to so many different tables for opinions and consultations, right from federal to municipal governments … You can’t get a better bang for your buck.”


However, it’s difficult to get a sense of just how many homeless people she’s helped get housing. Keller says she’s monitoring 104 homeless people, 38 of them intensively, but hasn’t kept housing stats. It’s something she admits her supervisors have been on her case about, and says it’s her “2012 resolution” to start keeping track. However, without those numbers, there’s no real way of comparing her work to other social workers.

Changing cultures


It’s not just skeptical advocates who question Keller’s role. She says not every patrol officer is so eager to hand out blankets. And she admits even her own family can give her a hard time. Her husband, sister, brother-in-law are also VPD officers. Her grandfather and uncle are retired officers. It makes from some interesting family dinner conversations.


“You get the odd comment that it’s just a social worker job, it’s not a police job, and so we have that debate in our own living room. So when you talk about a changing culture for all police officers, I’m even talking to my own family about [this],” she says. “But they get it and see the positive changes. I say to them, ‘How much social work did you do today, out there taking all your 911 calls?’ And they giggle, because we respond to so many of those types of calls. This is just a better way of doing what we do.”


Keller says it took a while, but more patrol officers are asking her how they can help. It’s part of the changing culture that is happening within the force. And since it’s unlikely that her program is going to expand, she says she’s going to keep nagging other officers to keep doing more.


Although Mayor Gregor Robertson has declared that he’ll end street homelessness by 2015, Keller things it will always be part of society’s continuum. And while not everyone thinks a police officer should be doing outreach work, many homeless people, outreach workers and the government are benefiting from her work.


For Keller, working with the homeless is “the right thing to do.” If the police are going to be dealing with people on the street, she says they might as well learn how they can start helping them. And just as it’s taken some time for some patrol officers to come around to this new approach, Keller hopes other groups eventually come on board as well.


Until then, she says she’s willing to keep listening and keep connecting with people, one-on-one, for as long as it takes.



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