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Finding Homeless People and Indigent Fugitives
 
 
L. Scott Harrell
CompassPoint Investigations
An excerpt from
"Apprehending Bail Fugitives:
The Business of Finding and Taking Bond Forfeiture Defendants into Custody"
 
Locating defendants or persons with information critical to a client’s case is a routine assignment for investigators.  We have a myriad of resources available to us that can assist in our efforts.  The proverbial “paper trail” we create as we go through life, from a birth certificate all the way through our eventual death certificate, many documents punctuate our voyage along the way.  Additionally, we have a multitude of sources to check when searching for almost any American: all of the computer databases, voter registration indices, civil and criminal court filings, the telephone book, crisscross directories, Motor Vehicle Department records, credit card records, Social Security data, sometimes police reports, and the list goes on at nauseam.
 
What do you do, however, when the subject of your search is not in the mainstream of society?  When there are no telltale signs we normally find along the paper trail?  Is it even possible?  Does it happen very often?  Yes, it can happen, and more often today than ever before.
 
An expanding segment of our population does not leave the usual clues, but a record is nevertheless created.  These are the homeless Americans we have all read and heard about more and more over the last few years.  There are now many thousands of these people in this country, and if you haven’t already encountered them in your work, the chances are quickly increasing that you will.
 
These people are on the streets for many reasons; they are “on the run”, they lost their jobs or homes, have no appreciable job skills or the ability to find work.  They may be mentally impaired, physically ill, or may be alcohol and drug abusers, but whatever the reason, chances are you will deal with them in a future investigation, especially as it relates to the criminal justice system..
 
Because of their vulnerability and sometimes their own acts, street people are turning up in increasing numbers as the victims, witnesses and perpetrators in criminal incidents.  Over the last few years, my company has been called on to help locate a number of these defendants.  In one case, the victim, the assailants and the witnesses (who all knew and traveled with each other) were transients living under a bridge a few blocks from downtown Austin, Texas.
 
How do you go about locating these people?  Some street people may not want to be located while others aren’t intentionally avoiding discovery but will still be hard to locate because of the lack of the usual leads,
 
Do not make the gaffe of thinking that because homeless people have no visible means of support that they are restricted from moving long distances in a relatively short period of time. I have found street people in Central Texas who have come from Michigan, California, Mexico, New York, and points beyond.  They travel to more moderate climates, to places where they have heard it was easier to get handouts or avoid prosecution, sometimes just on a whim; they do wander and sometimes to far off places.  In the case mentioned earlier, we found that upon hearing that we had apprehended his co-defendant, a bail fugitive had traveled from Austin to Dallas; a distance of almost 195 miles in only a few hours.
 
To start your investigation, you need some lead or basis to believe that your subject is in a certain area.  That information may be developed from the subject’s old friends, relatives, associates, ex-employers, or your client (if acquainted with or related to the subject).  The subject may have written or called someone and given an indication of location or destination.
 
Always check the jails in adjoining or nearby counties!  Next, check with the local police department.  In Austin we can get incident reports that list dates, times, locations and the primary participants.  If you do turn up a record of police contact with your subject, it is probably outdated unless the subject is in another jail or in a hospital. However, as limited as they may be, the records can confirm that your subject was in the area on a certain date and time.  They may also pinpoint the area where your subject hangs out regularly.
 
Hospitals and morgues are the two other institutions that commonly have contact with the transient population and are about the only ones that come from the routine checklist you may usually follow.
 
Your next step is to develop two lists; the first is of shelter agencies that cater to transients; the second is a list of places that these people typically congregate.  These two lists will probably have common characteristics, but there will be separate, distinct locations on each.  Various places you might find on the first list are:
 
• Salvation Army locations
• Churches and church-sponsored locations, including "soup kitchens"
• Privately funded charity organizations
• YMCAs, YWCAs, etc.
 
In many places, street people have formed coalitions or associations to help deal with their problems.  Any of these organizations may he able to help you locate your subject or give you other leads.  On your list of locations frequented by transients you will find:
 
• Bus or train stations
• Plasma centers that purchase blood from donors (and other income sources)
• Day-worker pickup locations where they can obtain labor jobs lot a short period
• Common street locations where transients frequent:
          In the vicinity of the shelter agencies like the Salvation Army
          Parks, bridges, highway overpasses, etc (protection from the elements)
 
In Austin there is an area called “The Drag”, a portion of a major street that runs along the west side of the University of Texas campus.  There are several places here where transients gather to exchange information about shelter locations and where to get free handouts.  They panhandle passers-by, share food or drink, and if they can afford it, drugs.  In this particular location, they also pass out or just fall asleep on the sidewalk. 
 
Once you have compiled your lists of places to look and checked with the jails, police, and hospitals then you are almost ready for the ground-search.
 
Hopefully you have obtained some or all of the following:
 
• Subject’s full name, aliases, nicknames
• Age and/or date of birth
• A photograph, as recent as possible, and physical description
• Medical data (illnesses or deformities)
Mental health information
 
In some eases, as a next step, you may want to prepare a “Missing” or a “Reward” poster, whichever is appropriate for where you intend on putting them.  These are useful for leaving with businesses or individuals, posting in shelter agencies and areas where other homeless people may frequent; give them to people you interview along your way.  The posters may generate additional leads on your subject’s whereabouts, particularly if there is a reward offered for information.  The posters should include a picture of the subject, name, description, maybe a reason why you are looking for the subject and how to contact you if someone has infor­mation. If a reward is offered for information it should say so on the poster.  If you use a “Missing” poster ensure you create a believable pretext why the defendant needs to be found.
 
Aside from a little research and possibly some telephone work, you are going to wear out some shoe leather and be dealing directly with people when you work a case involving these people.  If you are one of those investigators who can’t stand computers and you like to do your investigations the old-fashioned way, you are going to love this type of ease.
 
In making your way around the various shelter organizations, you nay run into problems getting information from some of them.  A number of the facilities keep records of the people who pass through them; for example, the Salvation Army shelter in Austin keeps an index card on every individual who spends the night.  The card shows a name, the date the subject stayed and has a short question­naire for the subject to fill out about any health or mental problems.  But many facilities have policies or legal restrictions preventing them from divulging much, if any, useful information.  In those cases it is often helpful to have a copy of the defendant’s warrant with you.  Most facility operators don’t want the trouble that often comes on the heels of a fugitive investigation and not cooperating. 
 
If you are going to use a pretext method, I recommend leaving a message for the subject to pick up (if appropriate to the case). Many facilities will take such a message for the subject and post it for their clients to receive if they come in to stay.  Be sure to leave a “Missing” poster and your business card with the supervisor and the desk clerk.  We have had several cases where, after we had made contact with the facility management, we received anonymous tips that our subject was at a specific location, most often at one or two o’clock in the morning.
 
Finally, you have to go to the various locations visited by other homeless people, talk to the people and check for leads or information.  Talking lo these people is not always easy.  They are often uninterested, evasive, drunk, or trying to manipulate the investigator into giving them a handout.  So it will take all of your interviewing skills and some patience to get information you can use.
 
Remember the following steps as you go about your investigation:
 
• Obtain a description of your subject and define a starting location for your search
• Check jail logs and other local records
• Develop lists of shelter agencies and locations fre­quented by transients.
• Make a “Missing” or “Wanted” poster in appropriate cases.
• Contact shelter agencies.
• Check the areas frequented by transients.
 

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