People enter a career in law enforcement for a variety of reasons. Police officers serve the community, uphold the law, and save lives. But what do officers do when the policies in their communities challenge their efforts to improve the quality of life for those they serve?
One such policy is the criminalization of homelessness, an approach that some cities and towns are taking in an attempt to get people off the street. Not only does the practice do little to prevent and end homelessness but it also takes law enforcement officers away from their important work of solving crime and protecting the public. Fortunately, law enforcement can play an important role in creating solutions to homelessness that we know are more effective than criminalization and can even save taxpayer dollars.
Criminalization: An inefficient use of resources
People experiencing homelessness, like all people, should be held accountable when they violate the law. But arresting people for performing basic life-sustaining activities like sleeping in public takes law enforcement professionals away from what they are trained to do: fight crime. It also forces them into a role they were not trained for—interacting with people who are often coping with untreated mental health or substance abuse issues. Instead, communities need to focus resources on creating affordable housing and sufficient affordable treatment options for people dealing with serious mental health or substance abuse problems. Virtually all homelessness would disappear if there was a sufficient quantity of affordable, adequate, safe places to live.
As police departments work to implement the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, conversations about how police can best respond to homelessness using a “guardian” rather than “warrior” approach should be front and center, and there are some solutions police can implement themselves. These programs need funding to support them and, equally importantly, funding to support the services they offer as an alternative to criminal consequences. Examples of where police departments have taken a leadership role in this critical issue include the following:
Police have the opportunity to implement better policies for interaction with people experiencing homelessness such as those above. A model set, based on those in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and elsewhere, is in available in our Criminalization Advocacy Manual.
Share your important insights as part of a broader conversation
As important as internal changes are, law enforcement must be involved in conversations about what the entire community must do to support effective policing and effective housing policies. This is a two-way street—we encourage law enforcement officials to voice their opinions and also encourage policy makers to solicit their input.
Some important things to share with policy makers include the following:
The bottom line is that the criminalization of homelessness does not solve the problem of homelessness. Instead, it burdens people experiencing homelessness with arrest records and forces police departments to arrest people for crimes related to not having access to housing and services.
The Federal Government is working to implement alternatives to criminalization in our communities, and we at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty are ready to help.
National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty