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Coordinated homeless outreach: Where does law enforcement fit in?

Collaborative responses are the most successful at efficiently using resources and driving down the homeless population when properly implemented

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Gallup Police Officer J. Soseeah, right, checks on the health of a homeless woman in Gallup, N.M., Thursday, April 7, 2020.

AP Photo/Morgan Lee

By Lexipol Staff

What is the best way to reach and help homeless populations? It’s clear that outreach is central, but what does adequate and effective outreach look like? At what point does enforcement need to enter the situation?

Law enforcement officers are consistently responding to calls involving homeless individuals, many of whom suffer from mental health issues. Agencies need to equip their officers with the right tools and coordinate outreach efforts with other local organizations and resources.

In a recent Lexipol webinar, a panel of presenters with more than 60 years of experience in addressing homelessness in Anaheim, California, explained that collaborative responses are the most successful at efficiently using resources and ultimately driving down the homeless population when properly implemented. These responses start with coordinated homeless outreach. When outreach is effective, homeless individuals will be more willing to accept an offer of shelter, which will lead to greater access to resources over time. So, what do coordinated efforts with law enforcement look like?

Coordinating teams within departments

Many agencies have developed teams to assist officers with homeless outreach efforts. The webinar outlined three teams that can promote efficient use of resources while effectively addressing outreach and enforcement needs:

1. Community Care Response Unit

A community care response unit consists of a fire/paramedic captain and a licensed nurse practitioner. This two-person team responds to non-life-threatening calls and provides treatment in the field. High-level medical expertise at the ready both prevents unnecessary hospitalization and begins the process of creating a bond with homeless individuals. It is crucial to establish connections within coordinated homeless outreach efforts, as they increase the chances homeless individuals will accept shelter.

2. Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT)

These teams are a collaboration between law enforcement and county mental health services. Two officers are paired with a licensed clinician on a full-time basis. PERTs frequently follow up with individuals they previously worked with who had been voluntarily or involuntarily hospitalized after a mental health crisis.

Anaheim’s experience has shown the value of these efforts: With a single follow-up, the chance the individual will experience another mental health crisis decreases as much as 50%. Not only is this another opportunity to have outreach contact with a homeless individual, but it also efficiently uses coordinated resources and saves time down the road.

3. Centralized Assessment Team (CAT)

These teams provide mobile clinician response services that include conducting assessments, initiating hospitalizations and arranging transportation. CATs handle all incoming mental health calls for service and will pass off relevant calls to the PERTs.

Each of these highly specialized teams within the agency monitor, aid and contribute to outreach efforts. In addition to these teams, many agencies have built up dedicated Homeless Outreach Teams and positions specifically pertaining to coordinated outreach efforts.

Coordinating with outside resources

In most communities, many services are available to the homeless population, but as Brad Fieldhouse, executive director of City Net, explained in the webinar, unless the outreach is coordinated, resources will often be used inefficiently.

In a typical service model, homeless individuals have different touchpoints with each organization they interact with: City services, non-profits, faith communities, health services and law enforcement. In a coordinated homeless outreach model, resources are aligned for the most efficient use and to avoid duplication. Time, energy and resources are maximized and successes are streamlined when all of the organizations work together.

Every organization is working toward the same goal of reducing homelessness. The increased efficacy of a coordinated approach is evident in cities where the model has been implemented. Enforcement on its own will not solve the problem, but outreach along with appropriate enforcement can help continue to reduce homelessness across the U.S.

To learn more about the role of enforcement in interactions between police and the homeless population, view the on-demand webinar: Law Enforcement and Homeless Populations: Balancing Outreach and Enforcement.