A Gun, a Badge and a Heart for the Homeless

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Few New Yorkers know more about the daily problems the homeless face than Vanessa Wanderlingh, a homeless outreach officer with the NYPD’s 20th Precinct.

“Within this last year I have engaged close to 100 individuals on the Upper West Side. I work with local outreach teams … and multiple residents of the community to offer support and guidance to those I encounter in the street,” said Wanderlingh, 34, who grew up in South Windsor, Conn.

On a typical day, Wanderlingh travels the length of the precinct and searches for people who may be living on the street and in need of help.

“I attempt to tailor outreach to specific needs. If they require I.D., I try to provide them with documents to apply for one, or if they need a shower and food, I alert them to the closest drop-in center or church that offers food,” she said.

Although the problems of the homeless are both numerous and vexing, Wanderlingh said that there are some persistent issues that face those living on the street. Key among those issues are substance abuse, mental illness, lack of housing and a family-based support system to help with paying bills, debts and rent.

Wanderlingh said, “Many fear the shelter system due to negative encounters they’ve had in the past. An individual may be ready to accept placement; however, there are no beds in which they may be placed. Also, every individual has a different requirement, and not everyone can be placed together.”

In addition, she said that problems also exist with the systems in place to help the homeless re-enter society, most notably that there is no central location where the homeless can go to address their various problems. “Each agency offers a different way of helping and a different menu of options, so a homeless person may need to access more than one group to fill his or her needs.”

Wanderlingh says that for individuals, volunteering is a great way to help, noting that organizations such as New York Cares are always in need of volunteers. In the neighborhood she works with the Goddard community center and churches like All Angels and Midtown Community Court.

A member of the NYPD for more than eight years, Wanderlingh, who attended Boston University, where she studied advertising and communications, admits that becoming a police officer was “always at the back of her mind.”

“After the attacks of September 11, I felt a greater need to do something that would make a difference and have a lasting impact in the community I live in. I wanted to contribute in a bigger way to the world around me. I have always volunteered,” she said, adding that she currently works with at-risk city children through New York Cares.

Ian Alterman, of the 20th Precinct Community Council, has strong praise for Wanderlingh’s first year on the job as a homeless outreach officer.

“As the president of the Precinct Council, and a minister whose primary ministry is outreach to and advocacy for the homeless, I have been working with her, so I know first-hand how amazing she is, and what a phenomenal job she has done in just the first year of being assigned full-time to homeless outreach,” Alterman says.

Calling living and working in Manhattan a “dream come true,” Wanderlingh says she loves the diversity of the city, working and interacting with people from all over the world.
“I love what I do very much and wish to continue on this path of helping those most in need, hopefully as a detective!”

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