Daniel B. from the Law Officer Facebook page asked about homeless outreach and law enforcement. On the one hand, Daniel didn't give me much of an indication of what part of this topic he was interested in. On the other hand, that gives me plenty of room to freelance. Since this is a huge topic for my department, I decided to give it a whirl.
A few statistics to get the ball rolling. A point-in-time count in 2012 found there were nearly 634,000 homeless people in the country. Of these, about 62,000 were veterans; one out of every 50 kids (under 18) in the country is homeless. The major problem with this type of study is it tends to miss a bunch of people. Estimates are that between 2–3 million people are homeless on a regular basis but find temporary housing between times of homelessness. Any way you look at it, homelessness is a pretty big problem.
My agency recently started a program to clean things up. We are handling the enforcement side of things, which allows code enforcement and city crews to deal with the issues more suited to them. Over the next 18 months, this program is going to cost the department a baseline of $3 million. That doesn't include the lawsuits, internal investigations, on-duty injuries and all the other issues bound to come about from this initiative.
The enforcement side doesn't buy you much in this auction. Where I work, the jails don't have room for anyone who isn't violent, so arresting them simply moves them from one part of town to another and costs them a few hours. If we lose or destroy any of their property, we move quickly into investigations for that, and money going out to cover the settlements. If the ACLU thinks we're being too aggressive, we will spend more money dealing with those lawsuits.
Keeping all that in mind, we serve our citizens and if they're upset about the homeless, we need to take action.
Cops generally solve problems with handcuffs, but this is the type of problem that won't get solved that way. Among the things helping create the homeless population in my city are the nice upper/middle class people from surrounding cities who spend their community service time feeding the homeless people in our city. I applaud these people for their service and for caring. I fault them for not feeding the homeless population in their own towns. This is probably the best way to ensure the homeless stay away from you—provide free food somewhere else. If you try to stop these people, they pull out the Constitution and say they're expressing themselves through giving food. It's a valid argument and countering it doesn't lie with cops, it lies with the health department. I'm sure these people haven't been through the restaurant classes required to provide food to the public. But health departments are being run as ragged as any other government department, so getting them to take on churches feeding the homeless probably isn't gonna happen any time soon.
I heard of one agency in an affluent city that came up with an interesting approach to solving their homeless issue. They have a few cops and a social worker go out and talk with the homeless. They ask about family and friends who might help and if they get an answer, they buy a bus ticket to that city and get the homeless person on the bus. It's great to think about solving the problem by sending these folks to places where they might have a support system. However, it doesn't deal with the substance-abuse issues, the jobless issues and for some, the desire to live outside the system. In essence, what they're doing is fixing their own problem while creating a problem for someone else.
The homeless problem is way above our heads. We can continue to enforce laws and direct people to services, but we can't stop an alcoholic or a drug addict from using and we can't give a job to an unemployable person. We should continue to educate people who give money to the homeless that by doing this, they're keeping them from the available services. We must continue to educate park users and city leaders that the homeless have the same right to be in the park as they do. We all know the politicians will sell us out quickly if things get messy. What cops must do is treat the homeless with dignity and respect, without letting our guard down. All that dirt doesn't make them less human—or less dangerous.
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