- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
While Nov. 24 was just another day on the job for La Plata Police Department officer Robert Nielsen, for a homeless man in La Plata, Nielsen’s response made for a warm night.
A call came in for an officer to assist someone, Nielsen said. The homeless man’s car had run out of gas in the Giant Food store parking lot in Rosewick Crossing Shopping Center, and he needed the car to keep warm that night.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my life,” Nielsen, 32, said. “I’ve been blessed in many ways, so I figured maybe this is my opportunity to give back.”
Nielsen said he went to the store, and the homeless man was waiting inside the Giant.
“He made contact with me. [He said,] ‘I guess you’re looking for me?’” Nielsen said.
Nielsen, who has been on patrol with the La Plata Police Department for two years, said he cannot release the homeless man’s name, but he has been living in his car in the grocery store’s parking lot for six months.
That night the temperature was expected to drop to 22 degrees. Nielsen said Safe Nights shelter program was full. The homeless man asked if he could stay the night at the police station. He had asked to stay inside Giant for the night, but he was told that corporate policy prohibits individuals to stay in the store overnight. Giant declined to comment for this story.
Nielsen decided to fill up the homeless man’s gas tank. But the car would not start, so Nielsen jump-started it with his police cruiser several times. Then, the car ran out of gas before the homeless man could get it to the Giant gas pumps in the parking lot. Nielsen said he pushed the car up the hill to the pumps while the homeless man steered.
Nielsen paid out of his pocket to put about $48 of gas into the man’s old Chevy. Then, he had to jump-start the car again to get it moving. Nielsen said he offered to also buy the homeless man a hot meal, but the homeless man declined and insisted on paying the officer back. Nielsen said he told him it was not necessary.
“Again, I’ve been very lucky in my life. The Lord’s blessed me many, many times, so it’s the least I can do to give back to somebody else,” Nielsen said.
In his line of work, Nielsen said he comes across a lot of people who are in need, and some are in need for the wrong reasons, such as they need money to buy more alcohol. This man was different, Nielsen said, because La Plata police have encountered him before but not as an individual who was causing problems.
“He keeps to himself. We don’t have any problems with him whatsoever,” Nielsen said. He said the homeless man was very polite when he responded to the call and told Nielsen that he tries to get odd jobs when he can. Nielsen said he got a sense that he was a good person.
Sandy Washington, executive director of LifeStyles of Maryland, a nonprofit with a focus on providing for community members in need, said while an exact number of homeless people in La Plata is not available, “homeless folks go where the services are.” In the case of La Plata, homeless people are there to be close to Lifestyles and the Charles County Department of Social Services.
Washington said on the weekends when public transportation is not available, in the town of La Plata homeless people will still be close to services. Washington said another reason for the presence of homeless folks in the town is that they know people care in La Plata and will do what they can to help those in need.
Homeless people spend a lot of time in the La Plata branch of the Charles County Public Library and in the Charles County Courthouse, Washington said.
“Many people look at it as trial after trial, but they’re looking at it as a warm place,” said Washington, who founded Lifestyles in 1998.
Washington said Safe Nights, a winter program that gives homeless people a safe and warm place to sleep, began a month earlier than usual this year, and she hopes the predictions of a bad winter are incorrect. Safe Nights has more than 140 homeless people registered, but can take only 30 to 35 each night.
“Our numbers are far beyond what we would imagine right now,” Washington said.
Recently, Washington, who has heard Nielsen’s story, had a staff member put gas in a homeless man’s car, who was living in the car. Lifestyles also provided food and blankets for a couple living in their car.
While Washington said she attributes the increase in the county’s homeless population to different causes, including mental health concerns, she said the county most needs affordable housing and jobs.
Nielsen said he has driven by Giant since and seen the homeless man in the parking lot, but he has not spoken to him. He has asked other officers to look out for him, too, especially with the snowy and icy weather early last week.
Nielsen said he was in the U.S. Air Force stationed at Joint Base Andrews before joining the police force. He worked at the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office for three years before coming to La Plata. Last year, he received his associate degree in criminal justice from the College of Southern Maryland. He currently is pursuing a bachelor’s in homeland security from the University of Maryland University College.
“It’s fun. It’s a great job. What better job can you have than being a police officer?” said Nielsen, who is married and has two children.
La Plata Police Chief Carl Schinner said in an email statement that “policing is not always about responding to crime scenes, making traffic stops and arresting suspected violators of the law.
“Oftentimes [policing] involves interacting with individuals in desperate situations who need assistance,” Schinner said in the email. “Robert’s actions reflect the highest tradition of the law enforcement profession. He saw an individual in need and acted with compassion.”
At the regular November La Plata Town Council meeting, Schinner related the story of Nov. 24 to council and called Nielsen’s performance “above and beyond.”
“I know some would call it that. I don’t see that. I just see it as being compassionate to others,” Nielsen said. He said he is lucky to have a steady job and a steady paycheck, but some are not so lucky. While police officers are trained to be tough and to treat people as they need to be treated, Nielsen said, this homeless man came across to him as someone who just needed help.
Nielsen said he does not make it a habit to spend that much money putting gas in someone’s car, but he occasionally buys food or helps out someone in need. And the homeless man at Giant “was definitely somebody that was in need.”
“My job isn’t always just to arrest people and give them citations,” Nielsen said. “My job is to be compassionate and help out members of the community.”