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If you go
What: The Rescue Mission’s annual banquet
Who: Keynote speaker Pierce O’Farrill, survivor of the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Landmark Conference and Reception Centre, 6222 Ellison Road
How much: $60 for one ticket, $110 for two
For more information or to buy tickets, contact Richard Cummins at 426-7357, ext. 138, or The Rescue Mission
The Rescue Mission, a nonprofit organization with an annual budget of $3.5 million, offers short- and long-term residential programs for men, women and children. In 2012, the Mission provided 45,133 nights of lodging and served 210,838 meals to the homeless and hungry.
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne police officer Ric Robles carries his lunch to a table at the Life House cafeteria at the Rescue Mission.

City police build bridges with shelter residents

When officer Ric Robles comes into the Rescue Mission’s shelter on Superior Street, he doesn’t wear his full police uniform. His dress is informal, just like his demeanor.

He’s personable and disarming, enough that you might not notice the Glock pistol on his hip.

His ease with people at the shelter comes naturally, but it also has a purpose.

“What we’re trying to do is develop relationships, you know, a face, eye-to-eye contact, a handshake,” he said.

The bridges that Robles builds are a key part of the Fort Wayne Police Department’s strategy in patrolling the shelter and the surrounding area, especially in light of violence that, according to Mission officials, has affected homeless people in recent months.

“These people are living underneath the radar. They’re at risk for being victimized in many different ways, not just the violence,” Robles said. “If there’s a crime that’s been committed, we want those people to report.”

To convince homeless people to report crime, police sometimes have to smooth some friction.

“If those people have not been treated fairly by the justice system, you know, whether it’s the courts, prosecutor’s office, police or judges, then they’ll try to, again, go underneath the radar and deal with situations in their own way,” he said.

Mission officials have accused a gang of young people, who frequented the shelter, of threatening staff and attacking a homeless person in Freimann Square. The Rev. Donovan Coley, the Mission’s CEO, said members of the gang mugged a 75-year-old shelter employee last month on Spy Run Avenue while he was riding his bicycle to work.

It’s believed the assailants, who were not welcome at the Mission, were retaliating against the employee, Coley said. No arrests have been made, said officer Michael Joyner, a police spokesman.

Mission residents Ken Thierjung and Jeff Davis, both 51, said they have not witnessed any violence at the shelter, but they’re well aware of the dangers elsewhere. They said a 64-year-old homeless man was beaten this month and left with cuts on his forehead and scrapes on his nose. “His face was all tore up,” Davis said.

Thierjung, who’s waiting to join an alcohol abuse program at the shelter, said he believes the gang is targeting the weak and disabled.

“I grew up in Chicago, and these kids are a sad excuse for a gang,” he said. “But they’re hurting people.”

Davis, who’s looking for a job, worries the violence will escalate and leave someone dead.

“If there’s no repercussions, what’s to stop them?” he said.

‘Keep the peace’

Robles, a 34-year veteran of the force, is the police department’s liaison to the Mission and to various other agencies in Fort Wayne, including the Center for Nonviolence, where he works with victims of domestic violence. He also serves as an ambassador to the city’s Burmese and Hispanic communities. With all of these commitments, his days are often consumed by meetings. But on Wednesday, he made time to stop by the shelter for lunch.

As he ate in the cafeteria, Tim Walchle walked up and greeted him with a fist bump. “I ain’t seen you in a long time. It’s good to see you,” Walchle told Robles.

Walchle, 49, approved of Robles’ presence. “Helps keep the peace, I think,” said Walchle, who is not homeless but eats at the shelter, which serves anyone who’s hungry.

Sitting across from Robles was 55-year-old Larry Thomas. The two chatted about Thomas’ home state of Alabama and the food he misses. Robles smiled and leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed as he listened to Thomas, a UPS package handler who’s not homeless but has trouble making ends meet. The men talked as if they had shared a meal before, but it was actually their first meeting.

This is how Robles spends much of his time at the shelter – talking with people, finding out what’s on their minds and learning about their lives.

“If there’s one thing that I can say about my experiences here and what’s important is looking at these people as people,” he said. “Maybe because of mental health or substance abuse … people tend to look past these people and not see them as individuals.”

‘Our best response’

Coley said Robles has been coming to the shelter for four or five years. During visits, the two men often walk around the building to show there’s a police presence, but not the tough-cop kind. “He is very friendly, and he initiates conversations with the folks,” Coley said of Robles. “They’re able to share some of their challenges, their concerns.”

Robles, 57, said Mission staff will sometimes send him a text message requesting a visit when there’s tension among shelter residents.

Coley said Robles provides a sense of order. And he does it without coming down on anyone.

Robles estimated that he has not made a single arrest in 10 years. This approach has helped him build trust among the homeless, many of whom, he said, have sought him out as a confidant.

Robles said police are investigating the recent violence against the homeless, which occurred away from the shelter. To prevent such violence from happening at the shelter, Mission officials have banned headgear that could conceal a weapon, as well as gang clothing. There are also plans to install a better surveillance system with more cameras. To make this improvement and others, the Mission hopes to raise $50,000 at its annual banquet Thursday, Coley said.

The other part of the solution, he said, will be two officers on bicycles patrolling downtown and Robles stopping by for occasional meals.

“He’s our best response to date in dealing with curbing anything that could have happened,” Coley said.