The definitions and perceptions of persons experiencing homelessness (the now preferred language rather than “the homeless”) have 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.”
Policies, training and specialized units focusing on homelessness have an increased presence in police agencies compared to 1993 when the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) surveyed 650 medium- to large-sized law enforcement agencies about police interactions with the homeless.
In January, 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.
Why Public Safety Leads Homeless Solutions
The rate of homelessness has dropped since 1993, according to U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) statistics, 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.
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.
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.”
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.
11 Actions to Consider
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:
- Take a problem-solving approach to homelessness.
- Create a dedicated Homeless Outreach Team.
- Select the right personnel to staff the Homeless Outreach Team.
- Provide staff with training to work effectively with persons experiencing homelessness.
- Take a multi-disciplinary approach to the problem.
- Collect, analyze and share data to better understand the community of homeless individuals and their service needs, and to track progress.
- Form regional partnerships to address the problem in a coordinated fashion.
- Pursue a variety of funding sources.
- Create or expand homeless courts.
- Work to identify and eliminate unnecessary, counterproductive barriers that prevent homeless persons from improving their lives.
- 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.
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.
Review and download the report:
About the Author
Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He 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 bachelors 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. His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at www.joelshults.com. Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.
Learn more about addressing homelessness and housing opportunities: