Using technology to enhance homeless outreach during COVID-19

By deploying speaker-equipped drones, a California PD reduced the time it took to communicate with 26 homeless encampments from 2 days to 3 hours


By Nancy Perry

On April 15, 2020, the Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) Homeless Outreach Team (H.O.T.) partnered with its Unmanned Aerial Systems team to provide public health education and hygiene kits to the city’s homeless community during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The CVPD H.O.T. team had coordinated with local social service agencies and the County of San Diego to increase outreach to members of Chula Vista’s homeless community during the national emergency, but some pockets of the homeless community present a unique challenge to serve. 

With dozens of square miles of urban canyons that have difficult terrain and dense foliage, CVPD officers often go into these environments on foot to reach people, which is time-consuming, arduous and dangerous. It is even more challenging for social service providers to accompany CVPD staff on these outreach efforts. The solution was a partnership between CVPD’s H.O.T. team and its drone team to use a speaker-equipped drone to communicate with more people across eight square miles. 

CVPD personnel staged services near common exits to canyons with known homeless encampments and used the drone to communicate public health messages in English and Spanish along with directions to a staging area for services. 

Food, personal hygiene kits and face masks were distributed at the staging area, while a county nurse provided medical screenings and information about how to protect against the coronavirus. Information about shelter options and other services was also provided. 

Twenty-six encampments were reached and offered services via the drone's speaker, 16 persons were seen and three people voluntarily accepted services. The outreach effort took three hours instead of the two days it would have required without drone support.

“I am proud to see two of our most innovative programs, the H.O.T. team and our drone team, combine to serve one of our most vulnerable populations,” said Chief Roxana Kennedy. “It is difficult enough to be homeless in the best of times, but during this crisis, I can imagine it must be terrifying to those without resources. I’m pleased that our officers and our County and social service partners were able to use this technology sensitively and humanely to reach and serve people in need.”

The following video documents the combined operation:

Next: Learn more about the CVPD's 'drones as first responders' program, PLUS why homeless outreach must continue during COVID-19

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