Solving the homeless crisis: How we can develop healthier and safer communities
Technology, data-driven legislation and adequate facilities are all parts of the solution
This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.
The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.
By Lieutenant Sarah Covarrubias
Homelessness has been a national issue for decades in the United States, despite the abundance of resources and efforts dedicated to addressing it.
California specifically continues to be in crisis trying to tackle the problem. The state has many different efforts and sources of funding dedicated to creating a positive impact on homelessness.
Three essential elements need to occur, though, to create the impact needed:
1. Utilizing technology to accurately collect and analyze data
2. Enacting data-driven legislation
3. Ensuring adequate facilities and staff are available and dedicated to this cause.
How did we get here?
Prior to the 1960s, state hospitals across the nation confined more than half a million Americans who suffered from mental illness. Following the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, which shut down many state hospitals, many individuals suffering from mental health issues were given psychiatric medications to self-administer and sent into society to fend for themselves.  Ultimately this resulted in many people suffering from acute mental health disorders who lacked the appropriate care, ability and housing they needed to thrive. By 2018 the number of psychiatric beds in the United States was only 37,000, and those beds were only for short-term inpatient units. 
A 2019 article in the "Los Angeles Times" highlighted a significant conflict in the statistical data being considered to determine the allocation of mental health care funding for those experiencing homelessness in California.  The Times indicated 67% of the homeless population in California struggled with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Official estimates from the state, however, asserted only 29% of the homeless population was affected.  This significant variance in data makes a great difference when deciding where to allocate funds to impact this growing issue.
The culmination of rapidly reducing the numbers of incarcerated, closing state mental hospitals and decriminalizing property and drug crimes has left California communities with an overwhelming problem of homelessness and untreated mental health issues. Communities across the state are feeling the effects and often call upon law enforcement to handle the resulting issues. As a result, law enforcement and local governments are forced to develop new policies and programs to combat the negative impacts of homelessness on their communities.
Over the years, the metaphorical pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other, from the 1980s’ “war on drugs” to the current era of decriminalization. In 2009 a federal court order forced California to rapidly reduce prison populations due to severe overcrowding, leading to releasing inmates early and having convicted inmates serve sentences in county facilities.  This caused a trickle-down effect and ultimately resulted in county facilities becoming overwhelmed. Lower-level offenses were ultimately released back into the community earlier or even released directly after the criminal violation occurred with a citation to appear in court.
In 2012 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation set a goal to increase rehabilitative services in an effort to reduce recidivism,  although the lack of county beds, ongoing substance abuse and insufficient mental health services resulted in persons in need being released back into communities without receiving the counseling, medication or abuse services they needed. But this does not mean nothing is happening – in fact, local agencies are already working to fill gaps in the system.
Where are we now?
Today, progressive efforts are coming from communities across the state. One example is in Bakersfield, where a transitional shelter is being used to help homeless individuals accomplish longer-term goals. 
The Brundage Lane Navigation Center (BLNC) was created by the city and is operated by Mercy House, a nonprofit organization. The facility has 150 beds open year-round to provide services to individuals in need who are ready to accept help and have received a referral.
The difference between BLNC and some other shelters is that BLNC is uniquely less restrictive, allowing homeless couples to stay together (instead of being divided into male and female quarters) and letting them keep their pets. Restrictive policies in those areas have been noted as deterrents for homeless individuals seeking shelter. Since BLNC was established in 2020, it has placed 122 homeless people in permanent housing.  According to the city of Bakersfield, its current count of unsheltered community members is 612, down from over 1,300 in 2021, with 744 who are now sheltered and 500 new shelter beds created. 
Other communities have similarly developed partnerships with mental health professionals or nonprofit organizations. For example, some cities in Los Angeles County have established contracts with a nonprofit organization, Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse (L.A. CADA), to work with law enforcement to treat people with addiction and behavioral problems. This allows communities to have access to more services and resources to assist persons experiencing homelessness more successfully. The San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments, for instance, developed a partnership with L.A. CADA to assist with providing additional resources to the cities in its region. Through such partnerships, the burden on law enforcement is lessened.
One complex issue, however, remains: Longer-term care is often needed but not always available or desired by the individual, which is why having adequate facilities and effective legislation is crucial.
Where are we headed?
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, from 2007 to 2020 the percentage of homeless individuals in California increased by 16%.  If changes are not made on a larger scale, law enforcement will continue to be overutilized to respond to the issue.
An example from Seattle, Washington indicates, “In 2018, Seattle Police Department booked approximately 1,000 homeless people into jail a combined total of 3,211 times.”  In California there are many great programs in effect; however, the growing rate of homelessness is going to become increasingly difficult to address individually by communities. In 2022, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced the planned closure of two more prisons and deactivation of facilities at six others,  which will exacerbate the issue by moving even more people with mental health and substance use issues out onto the streets.
What can we do?
In the spirit of the 2009 court order to take less enforcement action and provide more effective rehabilitative services, there needs to be a commitment to longer-term care. A three-pronged approach should be implemented to create cleaner and safer communities. The first prong would be to use technology to collect and analyze data to inform decisions and communication among stakeholders. The second would be updating legislation to be relevant to the current situation and the needs of our communities. The third prong would be to ensure adequate facilities and staffing to accommodate longer-term holistic care.
The discrepancy in data regarding the number of homeless individuals suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse addictions is problematic. Having accurate data is crucial to determine what needs to happen and know what is working.
Using a digital dashboard accessible across each county (similar to Los Angeles County’s electronic suspected child abuse reporting system [eSCARS] technology used for cases of alleged child abuse and neglect), social workers, mental health professionals, law enforcement, medical professionals, district attorney’s offices and the courts would be able to communicate case notes and data cohesively and within legal guidelines. This technology would allow stakeholders to develop an accurate representation of the homeless population in the criminal justice system in each region to better assess their need for care and resources.
Currently, the technology being used regarding homelessness is specific to the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health or an individual stakeholder’s in-house record system and is used for case management purposes. Building an online portal that will allow agencies to share data can provide case management assistance but also be used for data collection and cross-analysis. Each stakeholder would be responsible for entering the data associated with their contact with an individual experiencing homelessness. The data can then be analyzed and reviewed judicially to determine the appropriate response for that individual’s needs. The case management notes could help justify longer-term treatment or involuntary commitment.
Ultimately, this data can help indicate where funding is most needed, whether it be the creation of affordable housing, longer-term beds, facilities capable of involuntary commitments, mental health resources, or other similar services.
Current laws restrict the amount of time someone could be required to stay in a mental health treatment facility involuntarily if they do not blatantly demonstrate harmful behavior. Through collaborative data collection across the state and judicial review, new legislation can be proposed based on the actual data assessment and current needs of our communities. If new thresholds are determined to be necessary, the data analysis can help illustrate and justify the need for changes to be made.
The legislative changes made in the 1960s were a dramatic response to the negative stigma of institutionalization. The legislation, although well intended for patients’ rights, caused unintended consequences for people in crisis incapable or non-desirous of taking medication and fending for themselves in our communities. Many incarcerated individuals will continually be released into society without the mental health support or resources they need or can obtain on their own. There will be an even greater need for our state to provide involuntary treatment, requiring the need to reassess the legislation under which we are currently operating.
3. Adequate facilities and staff
As we continue to reduce our incarceration levels through prison closures, the newly vacant facilities could open new opportunities to holistically help people become mentally healthier and capable of being self-sufficient in a cost-effective manner. These facilities can be run through public-private partnerships, utilizing internships and creating more professional jobs statewide. The negative perception associated with asylums and state mental hospitals can be reformed through proper oversight and implementation. New facilities or even converted former prisons could be dedicated to demonstrating a compassionate effort to help at-risk members of society be able to function independently. For those not able, there needs to be a place for them to live safely and healthily with access to long-term services. This not only treats the individuals in crisis but assists in keeping communities safer and more sanitary.
The issues relating to homelessness won’t solve themselves. Homelessness is technically not a law enforcement matter, and the overall desired goal is to prioritize rehabilitation and treatment over incarceration in matters pertaining to drug abuse and lower-level crimes. To that end, overt actions are needed to change the trajectory of the homeless crisis in California. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “The future depends on what we do in the present.”
The same efforts made by law enforcement and government agencies over the past decade are not going to make the impacts needed to lessen this issue for future generations. We can do better. Let’s work together and create bold change to get treatment to those on the streets to make them healthy and whole for more stable, peaceful communities.
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3. Smith D, Orestes B. (Oct. 7, 2019.) Are many homeless people in L.A. mentally ill? New findings back the public’s perception. Los Angeles Times.
4. Lofstrom M, Martin B. Public Safety Realignment: Impacts So Far. Public Policy Institute of California.
5. Hale M. Reducing homelessness: Police collaboration with transitional shelters may be key. Police1.
6. Bliss K. California Prison Rehabilitation Programs Costly and Ineffective. Prison Legal News.
7. Couch D. (April 2, 2022.) COUCH’S CORNER: Mercy House’s BLNC helping solve homelessness in Kern. The Record.
9. State of Homelessness: 2022 Edition. National Alliance to End Homelessness. Sep. 7, 2022.
10. Kroman D. (Feb. 20, 2019.) In Seattle, 1 in 5 people booked into jail are homeless. Crosscut.
About the author
Sarah Covarrubias is a lieutenant with the Monrovia Police Department in California. She currently serves as the detective bureau commander and previously served as a patrol watch commander. She began her career as a police officer at the Monrovia Police Department in 2007, after serving in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. Covarrubias has worked patrol, was assigned to the Special Enforcement Team, investigations, and was a crisis negotiator on the regional SWAT team.
Lt. Covarrubias has earned the basic, intermediate, advanced, supervisor and management peace officer standards and training certificates. She completed her master’s degree in public administration and her bachelor’s degree in criminology from the University of La Verne. She has also recently completed the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training’s Command College Program, Class No. 69.