homless man from article

Police Strategies Evolve In Dealing With The Homeless

The days of “round them up and lock them up” are history.  More and more, intelligent law enforcement response to homeless populations view the challenge as not only a policing issue, but a community-wide issue.  INTELLEO takes a look at this evolving approach.

Maximizing Community Resources

Writing for Policeone.com, retired Colorado police chief and academic Joel F. Schults, Ed D., has spent most of his 30-years in law enforcement studying and training law enforcement personnel on productive strategies in responding to the homeless.  In a nutshell, he outlines the strategy changes that have taken place since 1993 when some 650 police agencies were surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and PERF’s 2018 National Conference on the homeless topic.  Interpretation on the data and statistics on homeless numbers, crime rates, and changes in local and federal policing policies can be challenging.  But a synopsis of three of the recent conference’s highlights include:

*Surprisingly, according to the office of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of homeless has actually declined since that 1993 survey.  That conclusion is based on two factors:  (1)  Better counting methods and more accurate data from the two federal agencies and (2) overall homeless numbers tend to be skewed by higher crime rates and concentrations of large homeless populations in and near large urban areas.

*Shifting Perceptions: Twenty-five years ago, when the survey was first taken, some 70-percent of police executives saw the homeless issue as a policing issue.  Today, law enforcement leadership sees the homeless issue as a “community” problem and is seeking and demanding that more community-wide resources need to be marshalled in response to a pair of factors attributed to homeless numbers: mental health and substance abuse.  In turn, law enforcement is shifting its focus and tactics from arrest and enforcement, to intervention and outreach.

*Training & Resources:  Police agencies across the country need to and are stepping up training so that patrol officers are current on court policy dealing with the civil rights of the homeless, utilizing multi-agency response by incorporating the resources of county health and housing specialists, and evolving strategies to deal with sometimes large homeless “camps” that spring up and sometimes mobilize from location to location.  That migration is often triggered by weather, and more recently by employment opportunities in drug producing states as a result in changes in marijuana laws at the state and local level.

The 2018 PERF Conference resulted in more than a dozen suggested steps law enforcement can take to more effectively handle the homeless situation.  A few of those include:

  1.  Creation of dedicated police agency Homeless Outreach Teams.
  2. Collect, analyze and share data locally and regionally to better understand the homeless community and their service needs—including the tracking of progress in meeting those needs.
  3. Create or expand homeless courts with adjudication more focused on rehabilitation versus incarceration.
  4. Getting more homeless into temporary or transitional housing.
  5. Getting more homeless access to services for mental health intervention, substance abuse and other factors that contribute to initial homelessness and homeless recidivism.

Striking A Balance Between Compassion & Community Expectations

While law enforcement agencies modify their approaches to dealing with homeless populations, police and municipal governments must also strike a balance between social accommodation and resources, with the rights of citizens and businesses impacted by the homeless.  Those issues are addressed in an unvarnished manner in a 2019 Manhattan Institute White Paper, authored by Stephen Eide.  Entitled “Response to Homelessness: The Law Enforcement Dimension, this overview hits on a number of homeless challenges that include the proper response to:

*The homeless sleeping in public.

*Ordinances that criminalize the homeless.

*Passive and aggressive panhandling by the homeless.

*The development of “quality-of-life” ordinances that protect non-homeless citizens, local business and community public places.

Some of the conclusions and recommendations of this in-depth article offer 5 Principles for Reform on how both police and municipal governments meet the challenges of the homeless weighed against the overall needs of other community members.  Briefly, those noted challenges:

  1.  Striking a balance between the civil protections of the homeless with the overall need for local governments to maintain order in public spaces—a vital function of government.
  2. The balance necessary to address broader societal costs of public disorder to include the homeless overtaking public spaces such as libraries and public parks.
  3. The development and expansion of homeless diversion programs instead of punishing the homeless.
  4. Focusing attention on the costs and impact of “right-to-shelter” ordinances in some large urban cities—and their potential impact on cities with no budget to handle those provisions.
  5. Balancing the complications and challenges of the homeless population with citizen expectations that communities not be paralyzed in response to what the homeless need versus what the public has a right to expect in shared public spaces.

Complicating matters more for police agencies in how they compassionately respond to the homeless, are developments in large communities like Los Angeles with increasingly growing numbers of homeless.  A recent Los Angeles Times article highlights how some advocates for the homeless insist that police should not be involved at all with dealing with the homeless and that money and resources need to be dedicated to other social service agencies to take up that challenge.  Those calls in L.A. have led to widespread policy changes in policing activities in dealing with the homeless.  Given the continued problems and growth of L.A.’s homeless population, the jury remains out as to whether calls by those advocates and changes in policy are resulting in more positive outcomes for all con

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