The cellphone begs for attention, ringing and dinging with pleas for help from a vulnerable and often invisible population.

On the receiving end is the sole member of the Killeen Police Department Homeless Outreach Team, Officer Kyle Moore.

“My availability is my biggest asset,” said Moore who regularly gives his phone number to people in the city’s homeless community. That day, Moore was helping a woman get a job at a local fast food restaurant.

“I used to eat there all the time so I know them,” said Moore, a Killeen native.

Moore’s job is unique in the Killeen department because he is part police officer and part social worker. It seems incongruous but he works at it, getting right in the middle of the homeless community — listening, offering advice and explaining the rules of the road, such as not loitering in certain places, all while being nonconfrontational.

At the same time, he keeps an ear on the police radio.

“I mostly focus on helping the homeless, but if my help is needed, I’m going to assist because I’m a police officer.”

Moore’s police SUV, which he keeps nearly spotless, is unmistakable as it cruises around town, emblazoned with “H.O.T.” on the flanks and “Homeless Outreach Team” across the back.

Inside is an arsenal of food and gender-specific hygiene kits, most of which is donated by churches, organizations and community members and some that he buys himself.

“There are a lot of giving people in the community. Anytime I need something, I can reach out and get what we need, from bus tokens to gift cards,” he said.

Moore’s list of phone numbers also comes in handy because the social work aspect of the job is to be a connection between services and people who need them.

“I have to figure out a person’s needs, which could take three or four visits,” Moore said.

Needs may range from mental health and addiction services to help finding a job or temporary housing.

Moore has developed relationships with Friends in Crisis; Central Counties Services, formerly and colloquially known as MHMR; the Bell County Crisis Intervention Team; Cedar Crest Behavioral Healthcare; and Metroplex and Scott & White hospitals.

The approach does not “criminalize” homelessness.

“You’re never going to solve homelessness but we can help those who want to be helped,” Moore said.

All in a day’s work

Moore seems to know everyone.

“That’s Miss Tammy; she sits there every day,” Moore said, indicating an older woman with folded arms and a face both tired and stubborn, sitting nearly motionless on a bench. “She lives in one of these alleys.”

Moore slowed to a stop and hollered, “How are you doing? Do you need something to drink or eat?” She shook her head no, and Moore said he would check on her later.

The next stop was the Moss Rose Community and Development Center on Avenue E in downtown, The center is part of the Killeen Housing Authority and hosts outreach events for the community.

Small groups of people walked down the road heading toward the free lunch the center offers on Tuesdays. After lunch, many return to their camps or go to work.

Moore was greeted with smiles, stories and the occasional fist-bump.

“Many homeless people don’t want to interact with police officers, but they’re getting to know my truck and that I’m going to have a snack and some toiletries,” he said.

One person Moore helped that day was Mike Dusek, who is living in a shelter at the moment. Moore drove him to a job interview and then back to the shelter, chatting along the way.

“I’m just trying to get back on my feet,” Dusek said.

He’s taking it one day at a time, hoping to be able to start a food cart business someday. Moore has worked hard to develop a good reputation. .

“I have a good rapport because I treat people like people,” Moore said. “A lot of other officers would like to spend the time I do, sitting and talking. I have that luxury.”

Moore is proud of his polished police uniform yet his job requires him to be informal. On the streets, he’s just “Kyle,” or on the formal side, “Officer Kyle.”

Moore’s day starts with a list of appointments and people to check on. Along the way, officers call about homeless encounters.

“If it’s a new homeless person I’ll usually go visit,” Moore said.

Moore said officer safety always is on his mind so he will call for another patrol vehicle if he feels even the slightest bit uncomfortable.

“I can take care of myself, but if I walk up on a camp with five guys in it I will roll another unit before making contact,” he said.

Moore’s outreach services free up other patrol officers.

“Other officers around town appreciate him because it’s helping them focus on more serious crimes,” said Charles “Chuck” Kimble, Killeen police chief, in a recent visit to the Herald. “The county jail shouldn’t be the number one facility for the homeless, but many of them end up in police encounters.”

Killeen Assistant Police Chief Margaret Young added it’s important to buck the stereotypes about homeless people.

“In general, the homeless population tends to be victims of crimes, not criminals,” she said.

The National Coalition for the Homeless said in a 2016 report that more than 1,600 homeless people were victims of crimes from 1999 to 2015, targeted because of their homelessness.

The Killeen Police Department does not keep records indicating a person’s housing status.

Still, homeless people tell Moore about being victims of crimes, often unreported. “People take advantage of homeless people with mental health issues and that just burns me up a little bit,” he said.

He has seen cases in which someone functions well enough to find food and shelter but not enough to understand life’s nuances.

“I’ve heard of contractors hiring someone for day labor and then not paying them, and it’s hard to file a report without a written contract,” Moore explained.

He’s creating a no-frills Word document template of a contract for them to remedy the situation.

The H.O.T. beat

The H.O.T. was born in January with the then-new police chief.

“We knew we had to do something about homelessness so we white-boarded ideas just to see what would stick,” Kimble said.

Kimble remembered the H.O.T. officer in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was assistant chief, but he didn’t know if the model would work in Killeen.

Now he is seeing signs of success.

“We’ve seen a difference in downtown Killeen. I suspect crime is down in part because of Officer Moore’s efforts,” Kimble said. “Having one person who really cares makes a big difference.”

Moore was not the only officer who applied for the H.O.T. assignment, but his chief said he’s simply the right person for the job.

“Kyle Moore is a natural people-person, and he knew he would have to get personally involved in the lives of homeless people with the goal of helping them not to be homeless anymore,” Kimble said. “It can be taxing so he has to have a heart.”

Moore said he jumped at the H.O.T. assignment because of his mental health training. He also is a crisis intervention instructor with KPD.

He estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of the homeless population he interacts with has a mental health issue of varying degrees of severity.

It has not been easy, of course, especially when dealing with people who refuse help.

“It’s not illegal to be homeless as long as they’re not hurting anyone, so sometimes all I can do is to make suggestions. It can be a frustrating hurdle but I’m an optimist by nature.”

It’s named the Homeless Outreach Team even though Moore is the “team” for right now.

Moore is modeling the H.O.T. in part after the Austin Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Street Team, which has hosted Moore for training sessions.

“They have a great setup and I’m working toward something similar,” he said.

The Austin team consists of two officers, including one trained in crisis intervention, two EMS personnel, a clinical physician and a social worker.

Moore is emulating the capital city in other ways also, such as the triage center set up at Feed My Sheep there. He’s hoping to set up something similar at Moss Rose.

“It would be a pop-up resource clinic, similar to Operation Stand Down but on a more regular basis and eventually in locations around the city,” he said. “We’ll get all the resources together in one place.”

Kimble said in an ideal world without budget constraints, he would like to add more officers to the H.O.T. and still hopes to do so.

“He’s doing the work of five people and getting it done,” he said about Moore.

‘Anyone can be homeless’

Homeless people manage to hide in plain sight, Moore said.

Small groups of people inhabit abandoned fields in the middle of town and in delapidated, deserted houses in the northern part of Killeen.

In 2016, the Texas Homeless Network estimated there were 515 homeless people living in Bell County.

Hilary Shine, Killeen spokeswoman, said in January that the homeless population in Killeen had grown from 84 in 2014 to about 297, according to surveys.

“While these numbers are not specific to downtown, there has most definitely been an increase in that area,” Shine said.

The Friends in Crisis Homeless Shelter on Sprott Street, a program of the Families in Crisis organization, opened in December 2015.

Businesses in the past expressed concerns about the shelter attracting homeless people and possibly crime.

Moore deals with the center on a daily basis and considers it a good resource for the homeless community while acknowledging the criticisms.

“It depends on which business owners you ask,” he said. Plenty of businesses have no issues with Friends in Crisis.

Moore said he does not judge others because he knows that anyone can be homeless.

Lose a job, get divorced, acquire some medical bills … sometimes all it takes is a perfect storm of life events to end up head under water.

“Sometimes people have a notion that if someone is homeless it must be their fault. They must be lazy, or crazy or on drugs,” he said.

He knows from experience often this is a fallacy.

“Many people are one paycheck away, and it just takes a trigger, often a family tragedy of some kind,” he said. “There are a lot of good people out here who have just had bad luck. People seem to get into a circle of debt, a circle of struggle.”

Statistics compiled by the Central Texas Homeless Coalition’s annual Point-in-Time surveys of the homeless population on one night seem to confirm Moore’s intuition.

In January, almost 60 percent of homeless people said it was their first time being homeless in past three years, with less than 8 percent considered “continuously homeless for a year or more,” according to the Central Texas Homeless Coalition.

Almost 75 percent of people surveyed had found a place for the night in a shelter.

The biggest triggers for homelessness were unemployment (12.6 percent) and an inability to pay rent or mortgage (11.7 percent), followed by domestic violence (10.5 percent) and many other reasons, according to the coalition’s survey.

Statistics surrounding the homeless population are impossible to pinpoint in a group of people living lives in flux, and who can end up in Killeen from all over the country and be gone the next day.

“We don’t have a homeless population that is exploding out of control, but I’ve met five new homeless people in the past three days,” Moore said. “The Point-in-Time survey cannot tell the whole story because homelessness is a revolving door.”

Because the door keeps revolving, help from community members always is needed. Any items donated to KPD’s H.O.T. will get used but there is more to it.

“It’s not always about money and stuff,” Moore emphasized. “It means a lot to a homeless person if someone just says hello, and definitely to not use words like ‘bum.’”

Moore had one tip for folks wanting to help: don’t give money, give food instead. “It’s important not to enable, so just dropping off a Happy Meal is helpful,” he said.

It can be hard for police officers to leave work at work, but Moore has seen at least one benefit on the home front. “My kids have learned about giving by being exposed to helping other.”

Moore has learned a lot in his five months as the Homeless Outreach Team officer.

“It’s been a fun, wild and humbling ride,” Moore said with a smile. “I’ve gotten to meet a lot of good people, both homeless people and the people who help them. It’s been an eye-opener.”

Emily Hilley-Sierzchula is reporter for the Killeen Daily Herald. Reach her at emilys@kdhnews.com

Herald reporter

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