While homelessness may not seem like a law enforcement problem – nowhere is being homeless a crime in and of itself – police departments often find themselves saddled with the issue.
Homeless individuals both disproportionately suffer violent crime and commit crimes at a disproportionate rate, bringing them into contact with law enforcement 24 hours a day.
In a new report, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the nation’s leading think tank on policing issues, offers 11 recommendations that it says can help police agencies avoid turning the justice system into what one sheriff called a “dumping ground” for the homeless, through innovative partnerships with local governments and social service providers .
“Community members frequently complain when they can’t use their parks or other public spaces without having to navigate around people who are living there,” writes Chuck Wexler, the report’s author.
“In these circumstances, residents don’t call the health department or social services. They call the police.”
The report, entitled “The Police Response to Homelessness: Problem-Solving, Innovation, and Partnerships,” is the product of a January conference sponsored by PERF that brought together 250 law enforcement leaders, local government officials, researchers, and experts.
At the conference, sheriffs, senior officers, and police chiefs from around the country shared success stories and best practices from their jurisdictions.
Conference attendees agreed that arresting homeless individuals was not an effective solution to the issue of people living on the streets.
Such a response only turns the criminal justice system into “a dumping ground for a social problem,” according to Sheriff Robert Gualtieri from Pinellas County, Fla.
“For the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness, arrest and incarceration should be a last resort, not a first option for minor offenses,” the report says.
“Providing housing, treatment, counseling, and other services is a far more effective approach for most people who are homeless.”
This is because homelessness is often rooted in mental illness, substance abuse, and a lack of affordable housing – problems that do not go away when an arrest occurs.
Conference attendees provided examples from their own jurisdictions of innovative police-community partnerships that addressed the problem.
In San Francisco, for instance, the police department created a multi-agency command center that responds to calls involving homelessness. When calls come in, officials triage them to determine which agency is most appropriate to tackle the situation at hand.
This approach allows homeless individuals to access the wraparound services, including medical, legal, substance abuse, and mental health programming, that they may need to improve their living conditions.
Changes within police departments make a difference as well, the report states.
Officers should receive training that equips them to interact with people experiencing homeless so that they can respond to situations appropriately and with compassion.
Some jurisdictions have already taken this step: the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department instructs officers in its Field Training Program to contact a member of the homeless community once every shift, even if only to introduce themselves.
This practice familiarizes new recruits with homeless individuals and helps them comprehend the nature of homelessness.
The report also cites the success of a number of data-driven approaches, which can better inform law enforcement agencies about the nature of the population they are tasked with protecting.
In Vacaville, Ca., Community Response Unit officers collect information about homeless individuals they encounter using a survey on their smartphones, while jurisdictions such as Colorado Spring, Co., are using technology to map homeless encampments, enabling officers to respond during severe weather when evacuations may be necessary.
Other recommendations include the creation of units specifically staffed to respond to individuals experiencing homelessness, often called Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT), and homeless courts designed to provide assistance to certain categories of low-level and first-time offenders.
HOT officers should be carefully selected based on criteria such as practical experience, emotional intelligence, and patience. Homeless courts, the report says, can more effectively handle the kind of quality-of-life violations people typically accused of and ultimately break the cycle of repeated arrests through the provision of treatment services.
In implementing these and other reforms, regional cooperation is key, because one jurisdiction’s actions often ripple out to affect the jurisdictions surrounding it.
The report addresses multiple challenges to implementing its recommendations, including the difficulty of building connections between agencies. Even when both partners are willing and enthusiastic, laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which restricts the amount and types of information that can be shared between agencies, can act as stumbling blocks to cooperation.
But certain jurisdictions have come up with innovative solutions to such challenges.
Long Beach, Ca., for instance, drafted an administrative regulation that deems the city of Long Beach a single legal entity for data-sharing purposes, allowing its agencies to openly communicate with one another.
Another hurdle is amassing the funds necessary to establish or expand social services. But the report claims that costs upfront will save reform-minded jurisdictions money later.
Portland State University analyzed Portland’s Service Coordination Team, which works with individuals who are homeless and have had criminal justice encounters, and found that every dollar invested in the program saved $13 in crime and justice system costs.
“It is unrealistic to expect that these changes will happen overnight, and even the most effective programs will not make the problem of homelessness disappear altogether,” the report concludes.
“However, with concerted and coordinated efforts of police and sheriff’s departments and their partner agencies, communities can experience real success (in) reducing suffering and distress among individuals who are vulnerable, and (increase) community safety and overall quality of life.”
Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. She welcomes readers’ comments.