A new position in the Brookings Police Department aims to address the city’s homeless population and help connect individuals in need with social services.
“What I do on a day-to-day basis is go and introduce myself to every homeless person in town,” said Ray Branion, who became the department’s community resource officer in the fall. “I’m trying to help them get off the street.”
Branion’s work is different than that of a patrol officer: Instead of focusing on law enforcement among the general population of the city’s residents, he’s focused on connecting those experiencing homelessness with resources to help them move along, as well as providing other kinds of community outreach for the department.
His uniform is different, too. Branion still carries a firearm and other items of police gear, but he’s dressed more casually than the usual dress-shirt-and-badge combo.
“I’m kind of dressed down, in a way,” Branion said. “When they see that, they see I’m more approachable.”
That approachability is key to Branion’s job, he said.
When he meets a person experiencing homelessness in town, Branion tells them about his job, and asks them a few questions. If they’re willing to talk (and all but one person have been), Branion keeps notes about the individual, like where they’re from, why they live where they do and if they have any loved ones officer should contact in case of an emergency.
“It helps me get to know them,” Branion said.
From there, Branion said he works with a handful of different organizations to connect homeless individuals with the help they need. That might be through the VA, the Curry Homeless Coalition, local food banks or government agencies.
The idea of a community resource officer isn’t a new one — the Coos Bay Police Department has had one since May, and other cities across the county have adopted similar models in recent years. Branion said he’s taken a ride-along with Coos Bay’s community resource officer and uses him as a resource.
Branion moved to Brookings in 2008 after graduating high school in central California, and has been working in the public safety field ever since.
He went to school to become a firefighter — but changed directions slightly when he got his license to become an emergency medical technician. He worked for Cal-Ore Life Flight before being hired by the Brookings Police Department in 2019, he said.
Last year, the Brookings City Council approved the creation of Branion’s position — the first of its kind in the city, according to Police Chief Kelby McCrae.
For Branion, the idea of taking on the community resource officer role hadn’t crossed his mind until the job opened. As a patrol officer, he’d often been asked to respond to medically related calls because of his EMT experience, so he liked the idea of jumping into another service-oriented position.
“I had no idea until it popped up,” Branion said. “I enjoy helping people. As a police officer, it’s not just about writing tickets and arresting people.”
He still does some of that — he’s still a police officer, and does enforce the law when he sees it being violated — but now more of his job focuses on building rapport with the city’s homeless population.
In the first few months in his new job, Branion said he’s been in contact with 50 different homeless individuals.
He points to a few of those people as successes: one person who he helped find their way back to Tennessee, and another who returned to Arizona. He distributes some bus passes to people he meets, and is currently helping to find housing for someone who was recently laid off in Crescent City, Branion said.
Just a few months into the job, Branion is still figuring out exactly what his role is in responding to the city’s homeless population, he said. He hopes to visit Medford’s Livability Team, a group of city staff members who are specifically designated to respond to homeless issues.
Branion said many of the people he meets are travelers, passing through or living temporarily from other parts of the country. Others have been pushed into homelessness in other ways, and a handful tell him they’ve chosen to live the way they do.
“There’s a few that were affected by COVID. Not a lot, but some,” Branion said. “I’ve encountered a few individuals that were homeless due to (this summer’s wildfires) as well.”
Most of the people Branion works with, though, are just “down on their luck” one way or another, he said.
“Some people will perceive transients to be more corrupted individuals. From what I’m seeing, they’re not all corrupted individuals,” Branion said.