WHAT IF your community took a truly human approach to homelessness?

This post is third in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

It’s a little after 4 a.m. when two officers and a passenger step out of a police cruiser to talk to a middle-aged woman sitting on the sidewalk in Santa Monica, Calif. She wears very little.

“Good morning,” greets the passenger, kneeling down to speak to her. “It’s Brian from human services. It’s been awhile since we talked.”

Every day from 3 a.m. to 1 p.m., pairs of specially trained officers reach out to homeless individuals on the streets of Santa Monica. On this morning, the team is joined by Brian Hardgrave from the city’s Human Services Division. The trio know many of the people they encounter and asks everyone the same question again and again: “Would you like help?”

Santa Monica’s police street team includes six officers and one sergeant who are focused exclusively on homeless issues. “We use the police strategically to engage these individuals who might not normally seek traditional homeless services on their own,” Hardgrave says.

The unit is one of many initiatives in Santa Monica that addresses the problem of chronic homelessness. In the most recent one-day count taken last January, Santa Monica had 728 homeless people, 60 percent of whom were unsheltered. In comparison, in Los Angeles County—which includes Santa Monica—an estimated 47,000 people experience homelessness on any given night.

A network of Santa Monica partners—police and fire departments; city human services, health and housing offices; and nonprofit service providers—collaborates to find innovative ways to help the homeless. A guiding principle is the “housing first” philosophy, which maintains that it is not only more humane, but also more cost-effective, to house people as quickly as possible, and then make sure they receive services to resume stable lives.

Santa Monica was one of the first cities in the nation to develop a registry of the most vulnerable individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. And in 2007, it introduced another innovation—the Homeless Community Court. People who are cited for quality-of-life infractions such as trespassing or public intoxication are offered housing and treatment and, in the process, can clear their records.

Sgt. Jeff Glaser said an officer on his team recently received a thank-you email from a woman he helped. “He changed her life basically by waking her up one morning when she was living on the street,” Glaser says. “It’s those things that make us happy about what we do.”

>Read more about Santa Monica’s journey to a Culture of Health.