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Working with the homeless let him help the most people, retiring sheriff's deputy says

Working with the homeless let him help the most people, retiring sheriff's deputy says
Deputy Chet Parker, Lake Forest’s homeless liaison officer, talks with a man on Feb. 21. (Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Navigating through life is an arduous process for Kam Burns.

Psychological issues have made everyday tasks that most take for granted almost insurmountable for the 39-year-old man.

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He finds himself homeless on the streets of Lake Forest.

Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Chet Parker — homeless liaison officer for Lake Forest — met Burns on a Wednesday morning in a courtyard off El Toro Road and handed him a newly acquired ID card.

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Without an ID, acquiring needed services can be difficult.

"I go through so many," Burns said. "I lose things. It's been a hard couple of years. It feels great to have a new one."

Parker shifted his attention to another homeless man in the courtyard, who just did a stint in the county jail, and provided the man with information about a decent-paying job as a forklift operator.

It's a great start-up job, if he could stay clean and sober, Parker said.

"A string of unfortunate events caught up with him," Parker said. "He's a solid family man and we're trying to get him locked on."

Parker figured he's connected about 80 homeless people with services and helped them get off the streets during his three-year tenure as a homeless liaison officer.

After 25 years with the Sheriff's Department, Parker is retiring at the end of March. He's been training Deputy Sergio Castro to take over as homeless liaison officer in Lake Forest.

"It'll be pretty tough," Burns said of Parker retiring. "Mainly when I break down and get emotional, it's a good thing when (he) stops by and snaps me back into shape."

Deputy Chet Parker, Lake Forest's homeless liaison officer, shakes hands with Kam Burns, 39, on Feb. 21.
Deputy Chet Parker, Lake Forest's homeless liaison officer, shakes hands with Kam Burns, 39, on Feb. 21. (Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

During his tenure as a homeless liaison officer, Parker has established a rapport with many homeless individuals who make their way to Lake Forest.

Parker, a former U.S. Marine, knows why they are homeless, where to find them and how willing they might be to get off the streets.

He knows whether they have issues with substance abuse, mental illness or are simply going through financial hardship.

"What you try to do is listen to the guy's story and then try to determine what his or her specific criteria is," Parker said. "Then you take a genuine interest in them and break through that hard candy shell and then you pair them with a program."

In some cases, a person may have just lost contact with his or her family..

"A lot of times, too, it's people who have wandered out on their own and they are too ashamed to let their parents or loved ones know they are homeless," Parker said. "You try to become a bridge to get them back into good graces with their parents or siblings or even kids."

Parker carries around two thick binders filled with fliers and business cards for providers of available services ranging from substance abuse and mental health facilities to churches, food banks, shelters and employment.

"The impact of homelessness on our community is one of the top concerns I hear from residents, and the homeless liaison deputy is our most critical tool to deal with the issue," said Lake Forest Mayor Jim Gardner. "Deputy Parker has the perfect temperament — patience and compassion, with a cop's nose for nonsense. He quickly figures out the appropriate action to take, whether it's providing help, sending someone to jail or anything in between."

During his time with the Sheriff's Department, Parker has had numerous assignments.

He had no interest in becoming a homeless liaison officer and his only experience with homeless people was during his assignment with Orange County Transportation Authority where transients often caused trouble.

Sheriff's Lt. Brad Valentine, chief of police services for Lake Forest, asked Parker if he would give it a try for 90 days.

The first people Parker got off the streets were a couple with a young son who'd been sleeping in their car.

Parker learned right away that the boy's mother was a military veteran and would qualify for a variety of services.

"As soon as it was discovered, we got the ball rolling with VA services and she was off the streets within the next week," he said.

Parker, who became the city's first homeless liaison officer, realized he could affect lives in his new assignment. For his efforts, Parker was honored as Deputy of the Year as part of the Orange County Sheriff's Department Recognition program in March 2017.

"Most of us try to join the police department to make a difference and it's been ironic that I've been able to help more people in the last three years than in the first 22 years as a one-on-one," Parker said. "It's an interesting, crazy awesome job that I wish I had 10 years ago."

Lou Ponsi is a contributor to Times Community News.

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