Photo by kayla phaneuf on Unsplash

Ending Homelessness Together #4 — Should I call the police?

Have you ever called the police on homeless people? I have. And, I was running a homeless shelter at the time. With all the news these days about calling the police on people, and the unintended consequences, why would I do such a thing for people I care about? The answer is, I care about them.

In many cities in America, police are the first line of a state system that will help people in trouble. You may not like people with guns and clubs showing up at your door, who does? — But, our system is set up this way, I think, because 911 could mean anything from a cat in a tree to an armed terrorist in a bank. Sadly, the front line of our emergency system for people who are knocked down by too much alcohol or drugs, or people who have gone off their medication and are having a mental health crisis, or people who feel they have nowhere to sleep but in their cars or in the bushes, are our people in blue — the local police officers. Most of them didn’t sign up for this kind of social service work, they want to stop crime. But, across our country, we ask our police officers to make contact with people in crisis, before we engage professional social workers, drug counselors, or mental health professionals.

I heard from the police chief in Santa Maria, CA, a city of about 100,000, that 60% of his department’s calls were related to “transients.” In most cases, the kinds of offences that are being policed are illegal camping, loitering, open containers, public intoxication, or littering. But, the real crime? These people don’t have any place to go, or the resources they need to move their lives forward. Having our police officers focus on the people on the streets is like using an expensive, surgical tool to hammer a nail — it’s a waste of resources, and it’s bringing the wrong tool to the job.

So, why did I call the police? In this case, I had a group of men hanging out in front of businesses near my homeless shelter, who were not residents. They were drinking alcohol, dealing drugs (a little bit), but mainly just loitering. Yet, I knew that I would receive complaints from the local businesses that my homeless shelter was “attracting” this kind of behavior (not at all clear), and that no one else but the police was ready, willing and able to interact with these men. I knew, whether ideal or not, that the best hope for at least offering support to these men was to get the police involved. I knew that the more people congregated in this area, the more would come. But, I didn’t have a better solution for support, engagement, and providing alternatives to people than calling the cops.

It would be wonderful if there was someone else to call. My observations have been that when the police do come, they are amazingly patient, generally supportive and positive, and quick to come up with solutions for people — if they are willing to listen. But I’ve also observed that people showing up with guns, badges, clubs, pepper spray and body armor can really trigger those people who have had unfortunate contacts with law enforcement.

There exist multi-modal programs where social workers ride along with police officers. My hope is that these programs expand, because this may be the right answer. But, I think that we need to take police out of the equation altogether. Crisis doesn’t necessarily mean law breaking or violence. In fact, my own experience has been that when I or my staff intervened in crises in a loving and supportive way, that we could de-escalate the problem quickly and without incident.

With all the talk of “defunding the police,” I suggest that the we re-appropriate funding that is focused on criminalizing the behaviors of people who may be homeless. Let’s take the millions spent on issuing tickets and fines, issuing warrants and notices to appear, and conducting criminal trials for people with mental health or alcohol or drug problems who happen to be homeless, and focus on the best practices for actually treating the problems. Too often, for many of these folks, their lives become a cycle of being cited, going to jail, going to court, being released with penalties they can’t pay, and getting cited again for the same behaviors. If we continue to perpetuate this cycle, we use our police and court funds stupidly.

In my experience, when hospital staff, social workers, nurses, drug treatment counselors, and outreach specialists take to the streets (instead of waiting for people in their offices to show up), magic happens. People get into housing and treatment. People in housing show up for their appointments. People in housing take their medications. People in housing have somewhere to go if they need to drink or use drugs.

While our police, often, do a wonderful job of responding to the needs of both scared people and people in crisis; it’s past time to start treating the problems, not putting people on a criminal penalty cycle. I hope that the new discussions about policing and people’s civil rights extend to new approaches that meet people where they are.

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Chuck Flacks

Community development specialist — housing, employment, ending homelessness