Homelessness is first and foremost a social service issue. In other words, homelessness can be and will be resolved through the work of compassionate individuals and social service agencies, be they nonprofit organizations or government agencies. Nevertheless, the myth exists that homelessness is primarily a police issue.
If homelessness is truly a social service issue, why is police activity often seen as the ultimate solution to ending homelessness?
First, some housed people fear homeless people. The concept of “NIMBYism,” not in my backyard, is the totality of the negative thoughts and fears of some housed people who think that their safety depends upon homeless people, as well as social service programs serving homeless people, not existing in their neighborhoods, their “backyards.” These housed people often look to their municipal policymakers, legislative bodies and the police to “solve” homelessness by preventing or removing homeless people and homelessness programs from existing in their neighborhoods.
Second, often in response to the real or perceived feelings of housed people, some municipal policymakers and legislative bodies have focused on homelessness as an issue to be removed from within their borders, rather than as a city issue to be solved. These municipal lawmakers may pass ordinances that appear to remove the problem of homelessness within their city as a political tool for garnishing votes in the next election from their fearful constituents.
City ordinances do not cost money to draft and pass because the municipal legislative bodies are already in place and being paid to pass ordinances. So passing ordinances relating to homelessness per se, costs no additional funding.
Third, when a city focuses on passing municipal ordinances for removing homelessness from within the city, its police department becomes charged with enforcing these ordinances. Police departments already exist and, hence, no additional funds are needed to create an enforcement body.
There is no doubt that there are many fine members of police forces across the United States who diligently enforce the laws and simultaneously compassionately help homeless people. In addition, in a number of municipalities, there are police teams specifically dedicated to addressing homelessness. Sometimes these police teams have a working relationship with social service agencies and may refer homeless people to them for needed services. However, while the police can help homeless residents, the police cannot be expected solve all of the issues of homelessness.
What can we as individuals do to help end homelessness? We can do a lot:
• We can volunteer for and support local social service agencies who are helping to end homelessness.
• There still may be time this January to volunteer and support the HUD-required Point In Time Count (PITC) of homeless people which has been mandated nationwide bi-annually at the end of January since 2005. HUD uses the statistics gathered as a basis for distributing millions of dollars of federal funds to social service agencies.
• We can be kind and compassionate to everyone regardless of economic standing.
I asked several social service providers to share their views on this myth. I am grateful to them for their comments that follow.
“There are a lot of times when the police get the rap… My experience is that the police are much more of a friend to us [Alpha Project] and homeless people. But, the police are complaint-driven…
“All the best officers are sympathetic to homeless peoples’ situations. Anytime the HOT Team [San Diego Police Homeless Outreach Team] brings in a homeless person, we put them in the shelter… The HOT Team is our biggest advocate. There is no place to take anyone without the Winter Shelter being open.”
— Bob McElroy, President, Alpha Project. The San Diego Winter Shelter Program is run by Alpha Project.
“Social services — whether publicly or privately funded — are all dedicated to improving social conditions- – that’s why they’re called social services. It’s part of the community that has solving social problems as its core mission, its bottom line. Social service agencies are core in providing the relationships people need to be successful.
“Yes, to solve homelessness, let’s make everyone count. Let’s support the experts – the social service agencies – in the powerful work of building relationships with each person who is without a home.”
– Patricia Leslie, M.S.W., Director, Social Work, Point Loma Nazarene University
“The police can be invaluable partners in our shared effort to alleviate homelessness. However, they cannot be expected to arrest or simply relocate people who are homeless. Many jurisdictions restrict the reach of the law enforcement when it comes to where people sleep or reside during the day…
“However, what is clear is that Homelessness is not a Police Issue, it is a ‘Community Issue’. As a community, we can solve homelessness. The solution begins with empathy, compassion, and understanding. This is often difficult, but necessary in order to create the groundswell of action needed to create solutions. From this, we need to commit to affordable housing, employment options, health care, and ongoing supports in order to enable people to achieve their potential. Whose issue is it? Ours.
– Peter Callstrom, Executive Director of the San Diego Regional Task Force
“I, of course, sincerely believe that homelessness and problems that accompany it must be addressed by society at large and the social service agencies that have the knowledge and skills to help the homeless population. Government (cities and counties) and the service providers should be working together to help homeless individuals and families acquire housing, health care, both physical and mental health, education and the employment skills they need to become contributing members of our society.
“The police do have an important piece in this process, but it should be ‘compassionate policing’ such as the Homeless Outreach Teams that are trained to work with the chronic homeless population…
“All of us must take some responsibility to help solve [the homelessness] problem. So many talented and caring people are trying hard to end homelessness. We all need to do our part.”
– Hannah Cohen, Policy Consultant on Issues of Housing and Homelessness, President of the Cohen Group
“It’s such a myth to me, that when I heard that, I almost brushed it off my shoulder…because the political involvement [in homelessness] does not make the issue go away, it only moves it around. You can sweep [homelessness] under the rug, then you shake the rug and people on the other side of the street get upset.
“Whatever we do to get rid of ‘the problem’ [homelessness], we affect all those communities around us. It does not go away; it only grows.”
– Tim Sandiford, Head Trustee, Point Loma United Methodist Church, Commissioner of Ministries and Missions, Member and Point Person for Public Facilities, OB Forum