Certainly, the times we live in have created wider disparities in cultural or economic indicators, but the homelessness problem in America has now reached a point of crisis. The crisis is not one of lack of resources or intent to help those going through difficult times, but a problem of lack of coordination combined with a chronic, deviant, and predatory subculture.
Our citizens, when confronted with a person standing in the middle of a median in a crowded city street are torn. We, as humans, feel an instinctive need to help. We strain to look the other way as we slowly creep past them. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, we roll the window down carefully and provide a pittance; something, quite frankly, to make us feel better. We hope they will use our “donation” for some warm food or perhaps a bed for the night, but, deep inside, we know they probably will not.
At the same time, frankly, many of us feel a tinge of anger. As I have found myself driving past those seemingly healthy-looking younger people I cannot help but wonder why and how our society has come to this. The frustration is palpable. If you wish to see the raw emotion of this problem visit a city or county council meeting on homelessness. Anger, Rage, Frustration, Empathy, Fear, and a general pessimism that any governmental agency will ever be able to remediate any of this crisis. As it worsens, our communities degrade, our citizens loose hope, and we, as officers, feel the general apathy growing.
I decided that something had to be done to reduce or stop predation amongst the homeless.
As we began to develop our Homeless product we went into the homeless encampments of Salt Lake City, Utah. We heard stories of a wild and lawless world where “shot callers” (sound familiar?) ran these outlaw communities. The good, displaced people had been forced out of necessity, to be bound not by the laws of our great country, but by the code of anarchy. They lived in fear as the predators in their midst consumed resources meant for the downtrodden and ruled with violence, sexual assault, extortion, and an arrogance only a person who knows law enforcement cannot or will not intercede can have. Arrogance begets more egregious crimes, and our problem continue to multiply as a result.
Because in the crazy mixed-up world of Covid and Defund the police, our societies not only created unlivable conditions for many due to economic reasons, but then forced them to succumb to the rules of the unruled. Underfunded and demoralized police begin to realize they are simply not equipped to do what they are charged to do; maintain order and protect their citizens; all their citizens.
As a Deputy Probation Officer supervising high risk offenders I frequently came across offenders who had homemade signs for their panhandling. Stories of sick wives or injured children etched in crayon on a piece of cardboard. Except these registered sex offenders had no wives nor children. I listened as one offender explained how he could make “200 or 300 dollars” in a few hours, profiting on the empathy of good people. I became sickened. I am still sickened.
Law enforcement in our country have been hobbled regarding efforts towards clearing the cancerous predatory element from the homeless community. In most jurisdictions officers have been forbidden to arrest or even confront homeless suspects of minor petty crimes. Unfortunately, those petty crimes are usually only symptoms of a much deeper predatory pathology, which if left unchecked, only contributes to the growth of a criminal subculture amongst our most vulnerable which inevitably overflows into all our communities…that is what is happening now.
In addition, because law enforcement generally does not collect any information from the homeless, as one officer put it to me: “Every encounter with a homeless person is a new encounter.” By this he meant we must start over every time we get a call for service or patrol stops to assist a person in need. We know nothing of their history, their family, their legal situation, nor their history of taking advantage of service referrals made by community officials. This is police efficiency at its worst.
Research has shown that roughly 8% of any population, including the homeless, account for over 55% of recidivated crime.
Law Enforcement’s primary task with the homeless, therefore, is to effectively provide services to those in need, while identifying the 8% of known predators, criminals and other miscreants who move amongst the homeless population.
The sharing of information is key to this endeavor. Officers must be empowered once again to conduct informed risk assessments during field contacts so they can protect our innocent displaced citizens from the predators amongst them.
As we continue down the path of re-imagining police work, we must always remember to make and use realistic tools to help law enforcement protect and serve in the most humane and effective manner possible. Officers should be empowered to utilize the very best technology to enhance community safety and ensure all our officers go home to their families each night.
The elephant in the room is the predator amongst the homeless. We all “kinda” know he’s there, but we can’t seem to effectively deal with him. If we, as a society, are going to truly be able to help the homeless, we need to acknowledge, and contain, the elephant so we can all get back to helping those who genuinely want and need it.