Hannibal police are seeing a direct connection between a rise in the number of homeless, and a rise in the number of vandalism incidents at area parks.
Last year officers handled 30 homeless related calls.
This year, they've already had nearly 30 calls and it's only March first.
Hannibal police officer Matt Wilt spends more of his time patrolling parks these days. That's because in the past year he's seen some sort of vandalism and property damage at area parks buildings almost every day. Police Chief Lyndell Davis says homeless people are increasingly becoming the prime suspects in crimes ranging from trespassing to vandalism, peace disturbances and resisting arrest.
Parks Director Andy Dorian says a consistent rash of property damage began last year after the parks department began locking up rest rooms at night.
"That caused an outcry in the homeless community, some of which were spending the night in those rest rooms. Some homeless people started coming into the parks department to complain," Dorian said.
That led to trash can fires in Central park ... fires in park landscaping and property damage.
"We've also found a sort of retaliatory nature by some of the homeless we deal with. Some of our parks buildings have been victimized such that if our park department tries to restrict access to a certain building, or won't allow them, to sleep there at night,the building is vandalized. It seems to be directly related to the homeless environment we have right now," Chief Lyndell Davis said.
One of the hardest hit areas is downtown at the Y men's Pavilion and the bathrooms across the street. Police say homeless people are causing property damage here including smearing feces all over the sinks and walls every day.
Nearby, Officer Wilt found a bag of a homeless person's trash, left behind with a police officers business card, as if the homeless were sending a message to police.
Chief Lyndell Davis says the growing numbers of homeless people his officers deal with aren't people down on their luck; he says they're mostly transients who've chosen Hannibal as their home.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people we deal with are choosing this as a lifestyle. They refuse help from a structured environment. They may go to a shelter for a short period of time but they meet resistance because they don't like the rules or the structure. In fact that's a reason why they've sort of dropped out of society. Because they don't want to conform to normal society," Chief Davis said.
Chief Davis says homelessness in his city is getting worse ... and fast.
"We have seen an increase, and such a substantial increase in such a short period of time, that I think there is something else feeding this increase and I think we need to look at it as a community and strategically look at this and say how can we handle this so it doesn't become a bigger problem," Chief Davis said.
Chief Davis has his own theory on the root cause of why homeless people seem to be flocking to America's Hometown.
"Even though people with good intentions are trying to help the problem, they're actually making it worse. So I think we need to all come together and create an environment that we help those who need help but we don't create an environment where we end up increasing the number of homeless that we have from other areas," Chief Davis said.
But until a solution is found, officers like Wilt will continue to deal with the fallout from the growing homeless problem during his daily rounds.
"I think we need to address the root of the problem, not just that we have homeless because many communities have homeless, but getting to the root cause of why we have so many. And why its increased so much in such a short time. I don't think it's just the economy," Chief Davis said. "I think we've become such a desirable location for so many of the transient and the homeless to not only visit here but to stay. We need to address that problem now so we don't see more growth that we can't handle with our current resources."
Davis continues, "We have seen an increase, and such a substantial increase in such a short period of time, that I think there is something else feeding this increase and I think we need to look at it as a community and strategically look at this and say how can we handle this so it doesn't become a bigger problem."
Chief Davis plans to organize a meeting between all organizations who deal with the homeless in the coming months in order to brainstorm a solution.