08/10/2012 02:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tampa's Maverick Cop


BY THE TIME Albert Swiger encountered a cop named Steve Donaldson in the suburbs of Tampa in 2010, Swiger had more than 200 arrests on his record. He’d been arrested for burglary, for armed robbery, for assault and battery. He'd been arrested for grand auto theft, shoplifting and disorderly conduct. Month after month, year after year, the mug shots had documented his transformation from an angry young misfit to a dull-eyed middle-aged convict. He sported a shaved head and a scraggly goatee — “the jailhouse look," he said. All told, he had spent nearly half his life in jail, starting when he robbed a convenience store at gunpoint at the age of 14.

About 10 years ago, when he was 34, he’d decided he’d had enough of the criminal life and he checked himself into a rehab center and kicked his addiction to painkillers. He landed a steady job in construction, met a girl, fell in love and moved into her apartment in Hudson, Florida. After a few months they decided to start a family. But when the baby was born, the relationship fell apart. Looking back, Swiger talks about postpartum depression and wonders whether things might have turned out differently if he'd stayed around. Not long after he walked out, he called her grandmother’s house. He thought she was staying there and hoped he could patch things up. He learned that she'd killed herself with an overdose of painkillers.

Things disintegrated quickly after that. The grandmother took custody of the baby. Swiger got back into drugs, lost his job, his car, the apartment. He moved into a house with some crack addicts who let him crash on the couch on the condition that he would serve as “the muscle.” One night he woke to the sound of the dog going crazy. The house was on fire. He crawled out under a cloud of smoke and was sick for weeks.

He has trouble explaining what happened next, but at some point during this period he broke off the last of his tenuous social connections and retreated into the woods. He knew some of the other men who lived in makeshift camps around Tampa, and he’d learned that they could haul in as much as 50 bucks a day just by standing on the side of the road and holding a sign asking for help. He saw no reason why he should continue looking for work when just a fraction of a panhandler’s income covered the cost of ramen, beer, tobacco and pills. So he claimed a spot on Hillsborough Avenue, and that’s where he was standing seven years later, in 2010, when Steve Donaldson pulled up in his squad car and said, “If I could help you, would you accept my help?”

Donaldson is a common sheriff’s deputy — “a slick-sleeve,” as he likes to say, referring to the absence of stripes and badges on the sleeves of his uniform. He works for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department, the 10th largest suburban law enforcement agency in the country, with a staff of 900 deputies and hundreds of officers.

Sometime in late 2009, an order had come down from the upper ranks: We need to do something about the homeless problem. By the most widely cited counts, Hillsborough County, Fla., has more homeless people per capita than any other county or city in the United States, with nearly 60 for every 10,000 residents. New York City, by comparison, has 40. By the end of 2009 the situation had gotten so bad that panhandlers were lining up three or four deep on the street corners, taking shifts. A local bumper sticker expressed a popular sentiment: “Don’t feed the bums!!”

When a community pressures a police force to do something about its homeless people, the cops usually respond by ramping up arrests for crimes like panhandling, drinking in public and camping without a license. Donaldson had locked up his share of loiterers and drunks, but after his first few years on the force he’d come to the conclusion that the approach didn’t work. He’d arrest someone on a Monday afternoon only to see him standing in the same spot on Wednesday morning.

What if there was a better way? That was what Donaldson was wondering as he pulled up to Swiger’s corner, and what followed was the first of a series of encounters that have essentially transformed the way the sheriff’s department handles homelessness. For the last two years, Donaldson has been convincing police and ordinary civilians alike that the answer to the homeless problem lies not in arrests and jail but in something far more subtle, the relationship between a homeless person and a cop. Since 2010, by his account and others, he’s gotten more than 100 people off the streets. And he’s done it at a cost of virtually nothing beyond his beat-cop salary.

In some cases he’s connected people with safety-net benefits like housing subsidies—entitlements they didn’t realize they were eligible for or didn’t think they’d receive. But as often as not, the bureaucracy hasn’t come through, and in those cases he’s turned to less obvious resources. He’s called in favors from local do-gooders. He’s persuaded real-estate owners to let the homeless fix up their abandoned properties in exchange for a chance to stay in them. In one instance, he got someone a job at a ranch after the man muttered something about having worked as a show-horse trainer as a teenager.

Most of all, he’s tried to change the very attitudes of homeless people themselves. He cajoles, scolds, bullies, comforts, gives sermons and pep-talks and what you might describe as counseling. Other police departments employ outreach workers who alert the social-service agencies when a homeless camp crops up, but Donaldson may be unique in trying to reverse the tide of homelessness on his own, by sheer dint of his personality. One might assume he’s driven by sympathy or compassion.

“Absolutely not,” he says. He claims he isn’t interested in helping the homeless as such; he prefers to frame his work in terms of helping his department do its job. Still, he’s developed an obvious affection for some of his “clients”, as he calls them, and Swiger, he says, is his “rock star.” He says if Swiger can get off the streets, anyone can.

Swiger now lives in his own house on a street lined with lush tropical gardens and $200,000 homes. In the year he’s been there, he’s put in a lawn, laid circular stones in a winding path to his front door, and planted a row of trees bursting with crinkly red and white blossoms. One afternoon recently, he sat in his living room with Donaldson, reveling in the ways his life has changed since their meeting. He’s working five days a week for a landscaping business, a job Donaldson helped him get, and says he hasn’t touched drugs and alcohol in several years.

He’s also dating someone again. “I have an aspect of life I never thought I’d have again,” he said, “and that’s love.” Donaldson looked at him quizzically. “You finally shaved off that goatee.” He and Swiger laughed about the old jailhouse look. At 45, Swiger insisted he’d finally turned his life around, maybe for good this time. He said that for the first time since he was 14, he was on track to make it through a full year without getting arrested.

IN THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS, more than 250 cities around the United States have passed ordinances against panhandling, camping without a license, sleeping outside, drinking in public, sitting on the sidewalk, or some combination of the above. Advocates refer to this as the criminalization of homelessness. These laws haven’t done much to discourage people from living on the streets: On the contrary, homelessness is on the rise in some of the cities with the toughest statutes.

An advocacy group called the National Coalition for the Homeless compiles a report on the treatment of homeless people every few years, and Florida’s cities often rank among the “meanest.” The last time the report came out, in 2009, St. Petersburg, Florida came in second, after Los Angeles. A placid town of retirement homes and beachfront restaurants, St. Pete’s lies 20 minutes from Tampa across the glittering bay. Between 2007 and 2009, the city passed six new ordinances cracking down on homelessness.

From a certain point of view, St. Pete’s has made homelessness a crime, and homeless people are afraid that Tampa may follow its lead. Last fall, a proposed ban against panhandling appeared before the Tampa city council. One councilwoman, Mary Mulhern, told a local paper she was worried about “criminalizing poverty.”

“I just morally couldn’t do that,” she said.

Hers was the one dissenting vote. The ordinance passed by a measure of six to one, and panhandlers now face a fine or a jail sentence of up to a year. The general feeling among the homeless seems to be that the council wanted to “clean up” the city before the big political convention came to town. “The streets kinds of knew it was coming,” one activist said.

Some observers describe the proliferation of laws of this sort as a response to the failures of the country’s social services systems. A little more than 10 years ago, hundreds of agencies and advocacy groups around the country made a bold promise—with enough funding and political support, they would effectively end homelessness in America by the end of the decade.

Led by the National Alliance To End Homelessness, they asked for $2 billion a year from the federal government, and pressed the government to close the “front door to homelessness” by fixing programs like Medicaid and welfare. The Bush administration embraced the idea of a “10-year plan” and required local community groups to come up with their own versions. Ten years later, some observers say that more Americans are homeless than at any point since the mid-1980s.

On a given night in the U.S., according to a count by the U.S. Housing Department, around 600,000 people sleep on the streets, in the woods, in their cars, in parks and in homeless shelters—a population larger than that of Washington, D.C. This is a conservative estimate. Some counts put the number closer to one million. If you include people who’ve been relegated to temporary places like cheap hotels and the couches of relatives, the number doubles.

People disagree on why the 10-year plans faltered. Neil Donovan, the head of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says that the activist community should have asked for $20 billion up front, instead of settling for $2 billion a year, which ultimately amounted to the same thing. Only a massive lump sum would have sufficed to put every homeless American into housing, he says.

Other leaders, including those at the National Alliance, blame the bad economy and the missteps of local community groups. Yet homelessness persists even in places where social-service providers have won accolades for their work.
Donaldson agrees with Donovan’s diagnosis, but he dismisses his prescription (more money) as a liberal fantasy. “There will never be enough money,” he said. What Tampa needs, he believes, is better policing, and he suspects he’s one of the few people in the country who knows how to provide that.

One day this summer, Donaldson sat in the lounge area of a Tampa McDonalds, helping two men muddle through a morass of paperwork. Donaldson approaches pretty much every moment of his work with missionary fervor, but he was particularly excited about this meeting. “My first father and son pair!” he said proudly.

The father, Gerald Glassmyer, was in his 60s, and he was tall and thin with a hunched body and a cane, the result of a deteriorated disk in his lower back. His son was 40 years younger, and he blinked emphatically, as if fighting off sleep. Donaldson was dressed in the crisp white and grey attire of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department, and everything about him, from his boot-camp physique to the narrow, tense line of his upper lip, seemed to speak to his infatuation with discipline, efficiency and neatness.

One trait stood in contrast with his rigid appearance, however. As one of his supervisors put it, “Man that boy can talk.” Today, aided by several tall cups of coffee, he was talking disability benefits and housing subsidies, a task that he sees as one of the more mundane aspects of his job.

Homeless people are often eligible for help from dozens of government agencies: The Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But Donaldson has found that only a small fraction of them even get food stamps.

When he first met Glassmyer, Donaldson was appalled to find out that he didn’t have so much as a birth certificate. Donaldson helped him apply for one, and that had marked a turning point in their relationship. At the McDonald’s, Donaldson was eager to reminisce about those days. “Tell him how we met,” he said, taking a break from the paperwork.

Glassmyer smirked. “I was in trouble with the law.”

“And the law won?” Donaldson said. Glassmyer explained that he and a buddy had broken into an abandoned house “to suck down some beers.” Donaldson filled in the rest. “I arrested them.” He took a sip of his coffee.

Before locking up Glassmyer, Donaldson gave him his card. Glassmyer called a few months later. His 24-year-old son had just completed a three-year-prison sentence and had come to stay with him in the woods behind a furniture warehouse. Glassmyer told Donaldson he’d had enough.

Donaldson has come up with his own special jargon for his job, much of it inspired by the business and pop-psychology books that he fills with highlighter. When he comes across a piece of information that he thinks he can use to help a homeless person turn his life around, he’s calls it “the hook.” Glassmyer’s “ hook” was his sheer desperation, but about a year later, it was evident that his desperation hadn’t quite propelled him into becoming the optimistic, organized, self-reliant citizen Donaldson still hopes he’ll become. “Gerald?” said Donaldson, looking irritated, after Glassmyer handed back a blank form. “When I give you paperwork and say fill it out? Fill it out.”

Glassmyer launched into a lengthy explanation: essentially, someone had told him he didn’t really need it. Donaldson glared at him. “This is why you’re homeless,” he said.

Donaldson believes that there are a number of psychological differences between most poor people and those who end up on the streets. He thinks that homeless people tend to be more passive and withdrawn, more reluctant to seek help when they need it, more pessimistic about their prospects for success, and more likely to give up at the first sign of adversity. They lack “survival skills,” he say, and he sees it as his duty to change that. He says he can’t help them get off the streets without first “retooling their minds.”

SPENDING A COUPLE OF DAYS with Donaldson one gets the impression that he doesn’t have many opportunities for self-expression outside of his conversations with the homeless. Asked about his personal life, he’s uncharacteristically concise:
“I’m divorced.” What does he do in his free time? “ I don’t know. Jog.” He’s a font of wisdom culled from books like “Freakonomics” and “The Tipping Point”— stories about how success come to those who challenge conventions. And he believes that most of the conventional thinking about homelessness is wrong.

No, homeless people don’t usually want to be homeless. No, most of them aren’t screwed-up beyond redemption. Yes, all but a tiny percentage are capable of change.

“I used to think like a cop, actually,” he said, sounding almost apologetic as he criss-crossed the city in his squad car. “ I used to keep them in the backseat. One day I moved them to the front seat. Things changed. The mentality changed. This is when I have an opportunity to counsel them—talk to them, rehabilitate them, the one-on-one conversation, mano y mano. You can’t get out of the car with me at 45 miles per hour. You have to listen.”

Donaldson’s “front-seat therapy”, as he calls it, is the flipside of his disciplinarian approach. By combining the two, he hopes to carrot-and-stick homeless people into believing that they can do better. He calls this “coupling.”

One day in July, he applied the gentler side of this technique to a man named Mark who lived in the woods on the outskirts of town. So far Mark had declined Donaldson’s offers of help, and it wasn’t hard to see why. He and two friends had what one of them claimed was the “best homeless camp in Tampa.” Donaldson concurred. “They’re like the Swiss Family Robinson,” he said.

Throughout the country, but especially in the warmer states, people find shelter amid the trees and weeds of neglected lots, in camps that can range from a plastic sheet on the ground to a small village of three- and four-person tents equipped with generators, refrigerators and televisions. Mark and his friends had set up tents 50 feet away from each other, and Mark’s tent had carpeting, a bed and a bedframe, and an acoustic guitar on a stand.

As Donaldson walked over to him, he and a friend were sitting in lawn chairs, smoking cigarettes and talking, and they greeted Donaldson warmly, with smiles and handshakes. Then Donaldson started badgering Mark to get out his guitar. “What’s that John Mellancamp song?” he asked. The last time he’d dropped by, apparently, Mark had impressed him with a whisky-voiced rendition of “Pink Houses.”

At the end of the jam session, Donaldson reminded Mark that he was available if Mark needed him. Mark smiled politely and said, “I love it here.” Donaldson said he didn’t see that as a problem. The men had found such a remote spot that no one had complained. But as he drove away, he said he didn’t expect Mark to hold out for long. One of Mark’s neighbors had already asked for help moving out. “When Mark sees his friend move on, it’s not going to be so much fun for him there.”

DONALDSON’S PHRASE FOR this is “disrupting social networks.” He wants to replace a community of men who are sad and broken and drunk together, who share each other’s complaints and failures and low expectations, with a “fraternity” of improbable successes who cheer each other on. (Although there aren’t many women on the streets of Tampa, Donaldson has helped some of them, too.)

Donaldson sees himself as a member of this fellowship. Although for his first 10 years in law enforcement he had as much contempt for the homeless as anyone, he has since discovered that he has “more in common with them than I would like to think.”

Growing up in Tampa, Donaldson was something of a loner; he did not have a very large social network, as he might say. He did have a hero, however. When other kids were going out for football practice or studying for their SATs, he was reading “Trump: The Art Of The Deal” and “Trump: Surviving at the Top.” He worshipped successful “problem solvers”, especially a certain real-estate kingpin with a big mouth and a brash personality, and he got his own real-estate license at the age of 18. But by the time he’d turned 30, several of his ventures had failed. He had a wife and a young son and a drawer full of bills, and although he’d never been a great fan of rules and procedures, he was clean-cut and politically conservative and figured he’d fit in with the culture of law-enforcement. So he gave up on his dreams and became a cop.

For a dreamer, and especially one who sees life as a series of solvable problems, the daily work of a beat cop offers few satisfactions. Every 12-hour-shift brings the same mundane dramas: public drunkenness, break-ins, domestic feuds. Gil Sainz, a sergeant in the Hillsborough sheriff’s department who worked alongside Donaldson 15 years ago, said, “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the things that we deal with as patrol deputies on a day to day basis are all the ills of society. Sometimes when that’s all that you see, you come to believe that that’s all that there is. Sometimes after a while it weighs on your soul.”

When Donaldson started, he was filled with “vim and vigor,” a feeling that lasted roughly two years. As the novelty wore off, supervisors grew concerned. He’d lose his temper with old ladies, roll his eyes at departmental procedures. “I was an asshole,” he said. Sainz put it more kindly. ‘”I knew he was burnt out and he just wanted to come in, do the 12 hours and go home.”
Donaldson’s marriage buckled and eventually collapsed under the strain. As he now says about life on the streets, “One man becomes an island all to themselves.” Sainz climbed the ranks of the department, became Donaldson’s supervisor and began looking around for a task that his friend might find challenging. Then the word came down about the homeless problem. Many advocates questioned Florida’s spending priorities, and so did Sainz: Budget cuts had virtually eliminated funding for agencies that dealt with mental health issues. Clearly those groups could use all the help they could get, so Sainz set up meetings between them and Donaldson.

Donaldson says he sensed “an opportunity” in the assignment, but his ideas didn’t really begin to take shape until few months later, when President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included a 1.5 billion grant for “homelessness prevention and rapid-rehousing.” A local social worker asked Donaldson to help her find some people to apply for the housing subsidies, so he brought her to a camp in the woods and watched her fill out her forms. “She’s not doing anything I can’t do,” he thought.

The truth was that Tampa’s social-services agencies had lost so much funding that they could barely afford to send workers into the field anymore. But there wasn’t a single cop in Tampa who couldn’t tell you where and who the homeless people were and where they lived.

Over the next year Donaldson assembled detailed profiles on every homeless person he met, and made a map showing Tampa’s “homelessness hotspots,” and wrote an eight-page “thesis” entitled “Homeless Engagement and Intervention Equals Police Work.” Complaints about homeless people in his district slowly declined.

He tactics didn’t win universal approval from the higher-ups. One commander reportedly dressed him down after seeing a bunch of disheveled, bleary-eyed men hanging out in his office. Then the money from the stimulus bill ran out and all three people who’d gotten apartments through that program ended up back on the streets. Donaldson decided that he’d been unwise to rely on government money, so he persuaded a local property owner to let some homeless folks live in the owner’s dilapidated houses. The selling point: The men would fix up the homes with donated wood and paint, adding value to the properties and deepening their own sense of propriety. So far this “housing gimmick” has provided homes to five people, and Donaldson says it’s increased the value of the homes by thousands of dollars.

LAST YEAR, IN AN ATTEMPT TO stem the flow of homeless people into the county’s courts and jails, the sheriff’s department in St. Petersburg converted an old jail building into what its website describes as “a cost-effective shelter and service headquarters.” The homeless have their own term for it: “Jailter.” More than 250 men and women sleep in separate facilities, on pallets laid flat on the floor, while armed security guards stand outside, turning away anyone who arrives after the 8:30 curfew.

Donaldson doesn’t think much of this strategy. “If you want people to do better,” he says, “put them with people who are doing better than them. Don’t stick them all together in a warehouse, where they’re just reinforcing the behaviors that made them homeless in the first place.”

Donaldson hasn’t yet gathered nearly enough evidence to convince skeptics that his approach works best, but it’s hard not to wonder whether other police officers could at least benefit from hearing what he has to say.
His own bosses and colleagues are doing just that. Jerry Andrews, a deputy in the Hillsborough sheriff’s department, has spent hours shadowing Donaldson and emulating his methods. And just eight months ago, Tampa’s city police department enlisted Donaldson to train one of its officers.

Several other police departments around the country have adopted unconventional strategies for dealing with homelessness, too, and in many cases these methods have proved popular with taxpayers and the police. In Portland, a four-year-old police program has placed 87 homeless drug users and chronic offenders into housing, and has reduced their recidivism rate by 43 percent.

With his frequent references to “the tipping point,” Donaldson isn’t shy about expressing his hopes for success on a national scale, and he’s especially passionate about his home-improvement endeavor, a scheme that may owe something to his abiding love for Trump. But to see his ideas spread beyond Tampa, he’ll need to convince many other Americans of what he himself had such a hard time believing at first – that society’s most isolated, damaged people can change. And that won’t just mean convincing the taxpayers and the cops. A day after his meeting with Donaldson at the McDonald’s, Glassmyer sat with his son in a gas-station parking lot and offered a gloomy assessment of his situation. “Sometimes you just don’t see to the end of it,” he said.

He seemed to be losing hope, but Donaldson didn’t feel sorry for him. “He’s behaving like a victim,” he said the following day. “But he doesn’t talk that way when I’m around. I won’t let him.”

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.