The deputies at the West Hollywood Sheriff’s station do more than just fight crime. Sometimes they save lives.
That was what happened a few months ago when a sheriff’s deputy was called to stand watch over a man who was retrieving some of his belongings after being evicted from his apartment.
The 65-year-old man had been living in his apartment on Holloway Drive for about 30 years. However, in the past year, several family members died, and he fell on hard times, unable to pay his rent. He was evicted and left most of his belongings behind in the apartment.
His landlord agreed to let him return long enough to retrieve some of his belongings, but called the sheriff’s station asking for a deputy to be on hand to watch over him, just in case.
Deputy Bobby Vukazich, who has been with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for five years, the past three years stationed in West Hollywood, was assigned to the call. Vukazich arrived to find the man sitting on the front steps of the apartment building. They chatted some and the man seemed a little confused. However, the man did reveal that ever since he had been evicted, he had been sleeping in Plummer Park, using the showers and bathrooms there.
When they went into the apartment, Vukazich found it disheveled – trash on the floor, clothes strewn about, food left out to spoil. This apparently was not the result of a last-minute rush to grab belongings before he had to vacate the apartment, but instead had been the man’s living conditions for some time.
“There were different smells from food that was left sitting out. That kind of brought my attention that there was an underlying issue. A health issue or something else going on beside getting evicted for whatever reason. The mattress was on the floor. It wasn’t a normal apartment you would see,” Vukazich said.
When Vukazich learned the man was homeless, he called the sheriff’s station Mental Evaluation Team (MET) to come assist. The MET is a joint project established a decade ago between the Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. There are 35 MET teams working throughout the county.
West Hollywood was the first contract city to establish a full-time MET team at its Sheriff’s Station, starting it two years ago. In West Hollywood, members of the MET teams work either day shifts or night shifts. Each shift is made up of a sheriff’s deputy (who has nearly 1,000 hours of mental health and crisis training for the job) and a clinician from the Department of Mental Health. They are called in on any crisis situation but primarily do homeless outreach to help homeless people get off the streets.
MET team members Deputy Sergio Venegas and DMH clinician Jackie Eyerly came to the apartment to see how they could help the man. However, Venegas, Eyerly and Vukazich all noticed the man’s hands were shaking and when he leaned over to get his shoes and clothes off the floor, he could not get back up. They asked when was the last time he ate and he replied, “Five days ago.”
“He appeared stressed out and appeared to have some kind of mental condition,” said Venegas, who has been stationed in West Hollywood for the past six months. “I tried to ask him basic questions of where he was going to go. He had no game plan, had no place to go to. He was crying at one point. It was a need for help, but he didn’t know how to reach out and get help. However, his medical needs surpassed everything else, so we called the paramedics at the fire department.”
Paramedics took the man to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where several medical issues were uncovered including a heart condition. The man had open heart surgery shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, the MET team phoned the human services division of West Hollywood City Hall to alert them that the man would need help once he was released from Cedars. They also alerted Step Up on Second, the 36-year-old nonprofit dedicated to providing supportive housing and vocational services to people experiencing chronic homelessness and mental health issues. The city contracts with Step Up on Second for homeless services in the city.
The man stayed at Cedars recovering for several months, but in early April, shortly after his release, he moved into a congregate housing site in West Hollywood. Congregate housing is where individuals have their own private bedrooms but share common dining and recreation room areas with the other residents. The man is paying a modest portion of the rent, but is back living in West Hollywood where he has friends.
“Thanks to the wonderful partnership of West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station Deputies, the MET Team, the City of West Hollywood, Step Up on Second, and Cedars-Sinai Hospital, the man is healthy, housed, and safe to live his life once again,” said West Hollywood Station Captain Edward Ramirez in a recent Facebook post about the success story.
Meanwhile, Deputy Vukazich told WEHOville that the incident gave him a new appreciation for having a home.
“It’s sad, you can’t really imagine not having a home to go to,” Vukazich said. “You can have the worst day at work, but you have a home to go to, a husband, boyfriend, kids, pets, someone to go home to. It makes you appreciate everything you have. Some people don’t have the ability to have hot water or anything like that. It puts things in perspective.”
Vukazich also reminded that we should have compassion for those who are homeless.
“Just because they’re homeless, they’re still people just like us,” said Vukazich. “We’re all human. It’s not a good feeling to see someone going through something like that.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Venegas noted that there are dozens of organizations set up to assist the homeless. “There are so many organizations out there that can help,” he said.
Venegas has also observed that mental health issues factor into more and more of the crimes and incidents that sheriff’s deputies respond to.
“Working [as a deputy] for the past 15 years, I’ve seen the increase in mental health issue in the jails, in transportation,” said Venegas. “I’ve seen mental health being a major factor of crime around different cities.”
If you know someone with critical mental health issues, call the Sheriff’s Department and ask for the MET team to come out. The phone is (310) 855-8850 while the website is www.WeHoSheriff.com. You also can call the LA County Department of Mental Health at (800) 854-7771.