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Lessons learned from 25 years of policing the homeless

Policies, training and specialized units focusing on homelessness have an increased presence in police agencies compared to 1993 numbers


In this Sept. 28, 2017, photo, Stephen Schofield looks on as police officials encourage him to get a Hepatitis A vaccination near where is living along the San Diego River in San Diego.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

In 1993, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) surveyed 650 medium- to large-sized law enforcement agencies about police interactions with the homeless. In January 2018, PERF hosted a conference on the same topic to hear from attendees about the issue. The resulting report (available in full below) provides a valuable overview of problems with response strategies shared by police executives and line officers that could serve as inspiration for other jurisdictions. But what, if anything, has changed since PERF’s findings 25 years ago?

Fewer homeless, but more urgency

Like any sociology statistic, public perception doesn’t always match the numbers. In 1993, the crime rate was waning, in part due to criminal justice strategies initiated after crime spikes in the 1980s, but the public was still concerned enough to respond to Bill Clinton’s campaign promises on crime – a platform virtually ignored by President Bush’s re-election campaign.

Similarly, the rate of homelessness has dropped since 1993, according to U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) statistics cited in the report, but the perception that persons experiencing homelessness are more numerous than ever remains. HUD and the U.S. Census Bureau have developed new methods for counting the homeless that probably give a more accurate count. As with crime rates, national data are skewed by urban areas with high concentrations of homeless.

The definitions and perceptions of persons experiencing homelessness (the now preferred language rather than “the homeless”) have also changed in the public consciousness and among service agencies. While once considered as a monolithic group, experts categorize homeless persons in a variety of ways that may also define what kind of responses are best suited. These categories include sheltered and unsheltered, veterans, those with mental illness including substance abuse, families with children, unaccompanied youth, the chronically homeless and “travelers.”

Police problem or community problem?

In 1993, nearly 70 percent of police executives surveyed said that their communities saw homelessness as a police problem. Since both the 2018 report and the 1993 survey results cite mental health and substance abuse as a primary cause and complication of homelessness, police executives are insisting on partnerships with non-law enforcement entities to move solutions away from arrests and enforcement action.

San Francisco has recognized that a police response is not always the best resource. Instead, a multi-agency command center within the dispatch facility will triage a call to determine what agency or service should respond to a call regarding a homeless person. Cambridge, Massachusetts, police hold a weekly multi-disciplinary case management meeting regarding the homeless, just as they would for any at risk population, to develop response strategies on cases. More than 30 jurisdictions have courts designated for homelessness cases, some of which convene at shelters and mandate services in sentencing.

Changes in the law

Policies, training and specialized units focusing on homelessness have an increased presence in police agencies compared to 1993 numbers. This is not only due to increasing use of problem-solving police strategies, but also to court decisions ensuring the rights of persons who are homeless.

Rights to personal property, the right to camp and the right to panhandle are being enforced by court decisions. Clean up of camps and seizing of property must be justified and afforded proper notice on Fourth Amendment grounds. Ordinances against begging are challenged and voided on First Amendment grounds.

At the same time, laws intended to decriminalize drug offenses and provide early release to reduce prison populations have swelled the populations of local jails, reduced leverage of the courts to order treatment, and returned offenders to the streets with no life or job skills. Legalization of marijuana is believed by many to have increased the number of persons with no family connections or resources – the “travelers” – to move to states like Colorado, Washington and California to seek easy access to the drug or employment in marijuana grow operations.

Crime in the camps

Perpetration of crime by homeless persons is largely of a minor nature most likely resulting in release on a summons and not incarceration. Homeless persons are more likely to be victims of serious and violent crimes in shelters, camps, or in public spaces than to commit those crimes against members of the general public. This includes domestic violence, sexual assault, murder and human trafficking.

The change in attitudes and police response over the past quarter century makes helping homeless crime victims more likely today, but not less challenging. Finding competent and willing witnesses is problematic.

Action steps

PERF’s report documents the range of strategies and programs that agencies in different parts of the country are implementing. While the problem is different in every community, the report outlines 11 actions and initiatives every law enforcement agency should consider:

  1. Take a problem-solving approach to homelessness.
  2. Create a dedicated Homeless Outreach Team.
  3. Select the right personnel to staff the Homeless Outreach Team.
  4. Provide staff with training to work effectively with persons experiencing homelessness.
  5. Take a multi-disciplinary approach to the problem.
  6. Collect, analyze, and share data to better understand the community of homeless individuals and their service needs, and to track progress.
  7. Form regional partnerships to address the problem in a coordinated fashion.
  8. Pursue a variety of funding sources.
  9. Create or expand homeless courts.
  10. Work to identify and eliminate unnecessary, counterproductive barriers that prevent homeless persons from improving their lives.
  11. Evaluate what you are doing.

The success of these initiatives can be measured in a variety of ways:

  • Getting more people into temporary or transitional housing.
  • Getting more people access to services for mental health issues, substance abuse and other factors that lead to homelessness.
  • Placing more homeless people with social service agencies so they can obtain the care they need.
  • Reducing crime involving homeless persons (as victims or perpetrators).
  • Reducing citizen complaints about encampments or other locations where homeless individuals gather.
  • Getting more people off the streets and into permanent supportive housing and jobs.

The future outlook

Pinellas County Sheriff Robert Gualtieri, who spent over $2 million to house homeless offenders outside of his overcrowded jail, offers a realistic assessment: “Should we be in the business of running services for homeless persons? I don’t know. You can debate that all day long. But we are in that business, and we’re making a difference, and it’s solving a problem. Ideally, somebody else should be doing it. I’ve offered it to all of the homeless service providers in the county many times. I ask them, “Do you want to come do it? I’ll give it to you.” But nobody’s taking me up on the offer.”

Anything that generates 911 calls becomes a police problem in the view of the public and often in the view of elected policy makers. Whether in the scope of private and government concerns homelessness should be law enforcement’s primary responsibility, police leaders will be taking leadership in coordinating a comprehensive response to homelessness.

Police Response to Homelessness by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.