The top 10 reasons to start a police homeless outreach team (and how)

With an effective homeless outreach team, your law enforcement agency can deploy strategies to solve chronic homelessness


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ORLANDO – Homelessness is expensive. Each chronically homeless person on the streets of your community consumes up to $30,000 annually in public resources (such as jail stays and emergency room visits).

With an effective homeless outreach team, your law enforcement agency can offer strategies, solutions and savings by:

  • Decreasing police calls for service;
  • Decreasing homeless arrests and incarceration rates;
  • Saving tax dollars while reducing demands for public services;
  • Enhancing community relationships;
  • Avoiding expensive and unnecessary litigation;
  • Making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.
Tampa Police Department Homeless Liaison Officer Daniel McDonald, MPA, made a compelling case for why every police department should have a homeless outreach team. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Tampa Police Department Homeless Liaison Officer Daniel McDonald, MPA, made a compelling case for why every police department should have a homeless outreach team. (Photo/PoliceOne)

During his session at the 125th International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, Tampa Police Department Homeless Liaison Officer Daniel McDonald, MPA, outlined the top 10 reasons why your police agency should start a homeless outreach team and how to do it. 

10. You can no longer stay in your lane

The current approach to solving homelessness in your community is probably not working. While many communities try to ignore the problem, there is still pressure to do something, but why is homelessness considered a police problem?

“We have a unique ability to engage with the homeless and solve the problem,” said McDonald, who founded Tampa PD’s Homeless Initiative and Crisis Intervention Team.

9. The pyramid of social inertia

McDonald described the pyramid of social inertia, where the majority of communities – the largest segment at the bottom of the pyramid – want to maintain the status quo and let others deal with the problem of homelessness. There is a smaller segment in the middle of the pyramid who try to offer solutions, like a charity handing out food or sleeping bags to the homeless, but that doesn’t solve the problem. The small top tier of the pyramid is where solutions are found and law enforcement can play a role in implementing those measures.

8. Make exiting homelessness quicker, easier and cheaper

Homelessness is a complex problem, which is part of the challenge. Expecting a person who is living on the streets to navigate their way through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s assessment system is setting them up for failure, notes McDonald. The process of taking someone from the street to an emergency shelter and then to transitional housing followed by permanent housing can take 2-3 years. Requirements during these phases seem somewhat unreasonable, such as expecting a person to have a copy of their resume. Emergency shelters can play a role, but the barriers for entry need to be low, said McDonald.

7. You can drastically reduce the high cost of homelessness

There is a significant return on investment with homeless programs, notes McDonald, who says the average yearly cost of a homeless person hovers around $30,000, which is reduced to $12,000 a year if you can get that person into permanent housing.

Once an individual is in personal housing, costs plummet with savings on ED visits, detox services and jail bookings. 

6. The Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) is a proven model

The HOT model is well established nationwide notes McDonald, citing successful programs in place at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Sarasota Police Department, Broward County Sheriff’s Office, San Diego Police Department and Houston Police Department.

“The police are called regardless, so let’s help navigate folks through a rigid, complex system,” said McDonald.

Just like electrical linemen can fix a power failure anywhere in the country after a storm, why not take the same standardized approach to solving homelessness? Agencies should be developing regional partnerships and starting task forces, McDonald advised, and never just displacing the problem to a neighboring jurisdiction.

5. You can leverage community collaborations

If your agency has a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), you are halfway there, said McDonald, as you already have established relationships with community partners. Substance abuse and mental health providers often offer housing for the chronically homeless.

4. It’s a police problem whether you like it or not

It costs $125 a day to detain a homeless person in jail, notes McDonald, which is the current solution in most jurisdictions nationwide. We need to solve homelessness with housing, not just displace the homeless to jail.

3. To reduce litigation (how not to get sued)

McDonald cited several cases where courts ruled that cities can’t prosecute people for sleeping on the streets if they have nowhere else to go – in essence, you cannot criminalize homeless.  

With panhandling a litigation lightning rod, developing a homeless outreach team using a housing-first strategy will reduce municipality’s risk of litigation.

2. Jump start your community-oriented policing program

Homeless outreach teams are scalable, said McDonald, so start small and think big. If you can spare one officer, you can start an initiative. Even a small program can significantly influence your community’s perception of the police and receive positive media coverage.

1. You are committed to real solutions

Most of us became cops to help people, said McDonald: “HOT offers hope and gets help to people right on the street level.”

Ending homelessness is both good public policy and an effective use of public resources.

How your police department can start a homeless outreach program

If possible, dedicate one officer or more to homeless outreach, said McDonald. Don’t have those officers make arrests, as you need to develop trust with the homeless community.

The process of ending homelessness is time consuming and can require 15-20 contacts or more to overcome service resistance. McDonald suggests officers wear a uniform rather than plain-clothes so that they are easily identified. Word quickly spreads through the homeless community, so it won’t take long to make the transition from being a symbol of enforcement to one of outreach.

Homeless outreach officers should possess a unique combination of skills and attributes:

  • Patience
  • Determination
  • Compassion
  • Communications skills
  • Effective networker
  • Problem-solving skills.

These officers should apply a trauma-informed approach to their contacts with homeless individuals and use motivational interviewing and assertive engagement.

Homeless outreach teams can include professionals from other disciplines such as:

  • Social workers
  • Mental health workers
  • Street medicine providers
  • Case managers
  • Housing specialists.

Other best practices that are helping to solve problems associated with homelessness include:

  • Homeless courts for handling minor offenses where courts emphasize the treatment and rehabilitation of homeless offenders;
  • Free ID programs;
  • Outreach programs for the collection and distribution of citizen donations.

Conclusion

McDonald ended his presentation with a reminder that homeless outreach teams should use effective policing models to accomplish their goals.

“We should use elements of community-oriented policing, problem-oriented policing and intelligence-led policing when combating homelessness,” he said. “We should use data to see homeless hotspots just as we would crime hotspots so we develop the appropriate response.”

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ON HOMELESS OUTREACH INITIATIVES

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