BEHIND THE BADGE

GPD officer spends time with homeless

Volunteering at St. Francis House gives him a chance to connect with needy residents


Gainesville Police Cpl. Rob Fanelli greets a man, who wanted to be identified as Pineapple, during lunch at the St. Francis House on Friday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 4:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 11:39 p.m.

As a Gainesville police officer, Cpl. Rob Fanelli's patrol zone brought him into contact with many of the city's homeless residents.

But Fanelli took the contact beyond work into his free time — he volunteers at the St. Francis House homeless shelter.

"A lot of the issues in that zone were homeless-related, so I took a very proactive role in getting out there and walking around and talking to homeless people," Fanelli said. "I quickly discovered that the chronic homeless are a small part of the picture."

Fanelli, who has worked at GPD for seven years, is now a detective.

About four years ago, Fanelli was appointed to the St. Francis House board of directors. Executive Director Kent Vann wanted police perspective, and Fanelli volunteered for the task.

Fanelli said his police experience helps the organization in a number of ways. He can advise St. Francis House on security, for instance. It also improves the relationship between GPD and the shelter.

He said that some officers might have a skewed perspective of the homeless.

"I have a pretty broad perspective. There is the visual of what people see as the homeless — the guy standing on the street corner begging for change. But the vast majority of the people who come through St. Francis House are just people who are down on their luck — they have kids and families, and they don't spend a lot of time there," Fanelli said. "One of the biggest things is just creating the relationship between the Police Department and St. Francis House."

Another way in which Fanelli has involved GPD in St. Francis House is on Christmas toy drives and on holiday meals for the community's elderly residents.

St. Francis House, GPD and the Gainesville chemical company SiVance Corp. organized a toy drive that brought Christmas gifts to 80 families.

For the past two Thanksgivings, officers delivered meals made at St. Francis House to senior residents who are alone and unable to get a meal.

"I encourage the officers to take 10 minutes and just talk to them. Of all the compliments we get, people say they were just so happy to see a smiling face on Thanksgiving," Fanelli said. "It's more than just a hot meal. It's a wonderful way to give back, and it's a lot of fun."

Behind the Badge is a weekly series profiling area law enforcement and public safety officers contributing to their community. If you know of an officer we should profile, contact Cindy Swirko at 374-5024 or swirkoc@gvillesun.com.

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