Much of the plight of Amarillo's homelessness is because of mental illness. A new program and renewed emphasis is trying to better treat that issue.

The woman was in the corner outside of the old empty Texas Chicken Bowl restaurant last summer. She made a tent out of a sheet to close herself off to only her world. Her stroller filled with her possessions made it easy to know this was her home, at least for the time being.

As we ate next-door at Calico County, I ordered a grilled-cheese sandwich and some fries to go to give the woman as we left. Carrying the takeout food toward her, she apparently could see me over, through or around the sheet.

"Go! Get out of here right now! Now!"

"M'am, I've got a sandwich and some French fries for you if you're hungry - grilled cheese."

"You better turn around and leave right now or I'll shoot you! I've got a gun!"

Therein is one of the issues of Amarillo's homelessness, or any homelessness -- mental illness. Sgt. Jason Riddlespurger of the Amarillo police department estimates about 30 percent of the city's homeless are mentally ill.

That falls in line with the national numbers as well. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports about 25 percent have some form of severe mental illness. That's four times the general population.

"It's probably higher than that because a lot of it goes undiagnosed," Riddlespurger said.

It's a daunting task to successfully deal with those on the streets who are mentally ill, but Riddlespurger and a unit of six are charged with that. They are part of APD's Crisis Intervention Team, whose primary role is to handle mental health crisis events in the city.

That can be a wide net, from a man threatening to jump from an overpass to a hostage situation. But much of their work is is to deescalate situations among the homeless and help them in the aftermath. It's so much so that Riddlespurger's team has a satellite office in the Guyon Saunders Resource Center, a refuge and aid station serving the homeless at 200 S. Tyler Street.

"Watching Jason and his team in action is nothing short of amazing," said Joyce Knight, executive director at Guyon Saunders. "They can take someone who is out of control and bring them down to a point where they can now get them the help they need or help solve the problem they may have."

As social work evolves, changes occur. Working with the mental health and trying to address their issues has been ongoing and more hands on.

"Before we had a full-time team, we would have a case, maybe there's an arrest, and we'd make a report and nothing would happen again until there's another crisis," said Riddlespurger, a 21-year veteran of the department. "Now they're assigned a case like a detective, and make contact with them another week or two down the road to see if they got the help they needed, if they are taking their meds.

"We're not using jails as mental hospitals, and we're meeting them where they're at."

Victories, like any for those with substance abuse or mental illness, can be small ones. One man was arrested 19 times in 2016 for disorderly conduct, public intoxication, pedestrian in the roadway and the like. In 2017, those arrests were down to one. So far in 2018, none.

Another woman, in her 50s, battles schizophrenia. She was an outdoors hoarder, and had puppies that were not cared for properly. Officer David Wolvern of the CIT estimated there were five calls daily about her or from her.

With many people and agencies working with her, she's had enough clarity to move in with an adult son and family. The problem is not solved, but it's greatly alleviated.

"That's a poster event," Riddlespurger said, "and it needs to be ongoing."

There's a better chance of that happening within the next month. Because of some mental health legislation championed by state rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo), the city received a two-year grant for two full-time mental health counselors to work the streets and shelters with CIT officers.

CIT already works closely with Texas Panhandle Centers for Behavioral and Developmental Health, but as soon as May will have two counselors alongside officers on both morning and evening shifts. Riddlespurger is part of a group interviewing candidates last week.

"This will help significantly," said Adrian Hernandez of CIT. "Traditionally, when officers make calls, a lot of times it ends up in detention or (mental) hospital. Someone with more training in mental health than we have might keep us from detaining when that's not the best solution. This will open up more doors."

They've already opened at Guyon Saunders. With an office on site, and relationships established, many homeless clients want to pull up a chair or stick their head in and talk. They see a uniform not so much as an obstacle but often as an advocate.

Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at or 806-345-3318. Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue.