Police departments can take alternative approaches in their interactions with homeless people, according to the December issue of the Community Policing Dispatch, the e-newsletter of the Community Oriented Policing Services of the U-S Department of Justice. For example, a guardian-oriented, rather than warrior-oriented approach is advocated in the article by senior attorney Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Police departments have created Homeless Outreach Teams, Tars notes, in cities such as Houston, Texas, and Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Outreach Teams bring staff from law enforcement, mental health, and social service agencies together. When complaints about homeless people are called into police, the program helps offer social services and outreach opportunities as an alternative to arrests.
Tars says police in Washington, D.C., also work with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless to provide homeless response training to all new recruit classes at the area police academy. These efforts are also part of the effort to implement recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Tars also notes that such alternative approaches often need funding to support them, but he maintains that such alternatives can also save tax dollars.
Tars reports that it is more expensive to keep a homeless person arrested for a nonviolent offense in detention before trial for months, than to provide housing. He also notes that it is not cost-effective for police to sweep a homeless camp, when there is no adequate alternative place for the homeless, because the camp will just spring up again somewhere else.
Tars emphasizes that those who are homeless, like everyone, should be held accountable when they break the law. But he argues that when police arrest people such as the homeless for sleeping in public, it takes officers away from fighting crime. He also says it forces police into a role they are not trained for, in interacting with people coping with untreated mental health or substance abuse issues. Communities, he reports, should focus instead on creating affordable, safe housing and treatment options. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness website also profiles examples of Permanent Supportive Housing that communities may model.
Click here to view the December issue of the Community Policing Dispatch.
Click here to visit the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness website.