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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
According to the most recent Point-In-Time (PIT) Count from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an estimated 553,000 people are currently experiencing homelessness in the United States of America.1 Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of the count were reported as “sheltered” while the remaining 35 percent were reported as “unsheltered.” However, among unaccompanied youth (36,000 according to the count), 51 percent were unsheltered, a far higher percentage than the homeless population as a whole. While homelessness is more prevalent in major cities, it is also surprisingly common in both suburban and rural areas. The philosophy of community policing can guide law enforcement in building relationships of trust with their homeless and housed communities while reducing strain on public resources and improving quality of life for community members and officers.
Officer Nate Schwiethale of the Wichita (Kansas) Police Department did not expect to become an expert on the applications of the Fourth Amendment for government interactions with the homeless; it was just one of the consequences of the success of Wichita’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT). “I really think that we need more guidance on property and safety, because the Fourth Amendment covers the property of our homeless residents and we have a duty to them,” he said at a U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness event in Washington, D.C., in 2018.
The Wichita HOT was modeled after a similar successful program in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Wichita HOT “is responsible for responding to all 911 calls regarding homeless individuals or calls for service.”2 The team of three helps direct homeless individuals in Witchita to services and helps people reconnect with families outside of Witchita via a 501(c)(3) fund that is funded entirely by donations. The officers have flexible hours so as to be responsive to calls for service. They are connected to service providers all over the city, and they collect and publish resources for the community on services for the homeless.
Officer Schwiethale reports that since 2011, the chronically homeless population has been reduced by approximately 900 individuals, or an astonishing 72 percent. Schwiethale has even been personally identified as part of the team that got Wichita resident Ernest Robinson, who was homeless at the time, into housing and then into college at Wichita State University.3 Such stories are only possible through the dedication of officers like Schwiethale, who ensure that the philosophy of community policing extends to the entire community, housed and unhoused alike.
1. Meghan Henry et al., The 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress: Part 1: Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2019), https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/2018-AHAR-Part-1.pdf.
2.“Homeless Outreach Team,” Wichita Police Department, accessed February 15, 2019, http://www.wichita.gov/WPD/FieldServices/Pages/HOTTeam.aspx.
3.“Former Homeless Man Gets Associate’s Degree, Help from WPD Officer,” KWCH, last modified September 27, 2018, https://www.kwch.com/content/news/Wichita-man-climbs-out-of-homelessness-gets-associates-degree-494557871.html.
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