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Denton police clear the way for homeless outreach volunteers

Denton police Lt. Frank Padgett and Officer Ryan Kane walked along Pecan Creek in a vast wooded area near the intersection of Duchess Drive and South Loop 288 on Tuesday afternoon. Among the sound of passing cars and rushing water, they passed two tents surrounded by chairs, shoes, water coolers and other personal belongings.

Padgett later approached a tarp curtain framed by trees. He pulled it back to reveal two homeless men sitting among more tents, tables and chairs. Clothes hung from branches. A third homeless man slept in his own tent.

The location is a known area for homeless encampments. But Denton police weren't called to the scene for any disturbances or trespassing complaints on Tuesday. They were making sure volunteers from Giving Hope Inc., a local nonprofit that assists homeless people, could safely connect the homeless with outreach services.

As of last week, Denton officers have started accompanying Giving Hope volunteers to previously inaccessible encampments every Tuesday. This effort could help Giving Hope identify more people who are homeless and ultimately make them aware services exist in the first place, said Tyheshia Scott, the agency's housing navigator.

"And that's the benefits of us teaming up with [Denton police]," said Scott, who primarily helps homeless clients find sustainable housing situations. "[Officers] know all the different places. We sit in an office, or we go to set locations where people come to us."

Scott and Wendy Noble, the outreach coordinator at Giving Hope, rode with the officers to two known locations in the city on Tuesday. The first location showed signs that homeless people lived there, yet none were found. The second location near Pecan Creek proved to be much more populated.

Padgett, who oversees Denton's downtown district, said police have recently seen an increase in the number of homeless on the streets, both from out of state and from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"We're seeing an increase, and we're seeing an increase in the community's interest -- whether it's a negative interest or a positive interest -- in homelessness with everything that's going on in Dallas," he said. "So we're trying to get ahead of the issue."

Padgett said Denton officers already know about 100 homeless people in the city by name. Meeting newer faces is a secondary advantage to accompanying the volunteers.

"If we have a relationship with the homeless community, we're more trusted and they're more trusted amongst us," he said. "It's a two-way street, the trust. If you have the trust, it's easier to get them what they need."

In the homeless encampment near Pecan Creek, Scott and Noble asked six homeless people to answer survey questions about their backgrounds and personal lives. One of the men, Shane Rought, said he's lived in that specific area since June. He frequents Our Daily Bread, Denton's nonprofit soup kitchen.

"They're staying with me," he said, motioning to the two men in his camp. "They get run off, they get criminally trespassed. So most of the time, a lot of people, when they find me, they know I'm somewhere safe."

Rought said he came to Denton several years ago after a run-in with the law. He knows Padgett and mentions other Denton officers by name. While he considers several people in the homeless community his family, he said he's seen many new faces in recent months.

To him, the reason for the influx of new faces is obvious.

"If you want to be homeless, go to Denton, Texas. Everybody knows that," he said. "That's not me being a smartass. That's just what it is."

He said Our Daily Bread and the local churches are big draws. But, he said, the city is generally easier on the homeless population than surrounding communities.

Noble, the outreach coordinator, said the weekly effort will help bolster existing data on the homeless population in Denton. It could specifically help build on data from the annual Point-in-Time count, which is required by federal law and aims to identify the number of homeless people in the county. The results for this year's count will be released in April.

Scott said that while some homeless people want to be on the street, the weekly outreach efforts are geared toward people who want to get into shelter. And sometimes, in order to reach those people, it takes persistence.

"It might just be where all they need for their level of comfort is a pair of socks, and we're more than willing to do that," she said. "But we want to make sure that the people out there who don't want to be there get whatever time and all the tools necessary to improve their situation.

"And again, it might not be a one-day thing."

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @juliangillmusic.