The president of the Portland Police Association recently slammed the city's mayor for his response to the homelessness crisis, calling the City of Roses a "cesspool."
Portland Officer Daryl Turner — who has been a police officer for 27 years — wrote:
"Aggressive panhandlers block the sidewalks, storefronts, and landmarks like Pioneer Square, discouraging people from enjoying our City. Garbage-filled RVs and vehicles are strewn throughout our neighborhoods. Used needles, drug paraphernalia, and trash are common sights lining the streets and sidewalks of the downtown core area, under our bridges, and freeway overpasses. That’s not what our families, business owners, and tourists deserve."
Other cities have similar problems.
San Francisco — where I live and work — is one of the worst cities in America for chronic homelessness, so I routinely bear witness to the "cesspool" of which Turner writes.
As with so many things, in the fight against homelessness, police have been thrust onto the front lines of a war they are ill-equipped to win.
Police in America need help in solving the homeless problem. Sadly, in most places, the help they need is not forthcoming, or when help is there, it's not effective enough.
That needs to change.
A Massive Problem
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that there are more than 553,000 homeless people nationwide, according to data collected in 2017. California alone has an estimated 134,000 homeless individuals. Clearly, this is a massive problem.
What can be done?
Homelessness in and of itself is not a crime, but a lot of things that go along with it are crimes, and citizens rightly want those crimes taking place on the sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses to stop.
Most citizen calls for service regarding the homeless are for low-level crimes such as littering, public urination / defecation, panhandling, public drunkenness, and so on. But many arrests are for more serious matters, such as assault, battery, robbery, car break-ins, illegal drug use, and other offenses.
The trouble is, even for those more serious crimes, the offenders are highly likely to be back out on the street in days (if not hours) of being taken into custody. The whole process begins anew, with nothing really being resolved.
We cannot fix the problem of homelessness through enforcement actions alone. Police are the people being called to deal with the issue at a street level, but they are not the people who have the capabilities to address the root causes of chronic homelessness — the two most common being mental health issues and substance abuse.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, approximately 30% of people experiencing chronic homelessness have a serious mental illness, and around two-thirds have a primary substance use disorder or other chronic health condition.
Officers should be equipped with ways to connect any given homeless individual on any given call for service with the resources that can best address that person's need.
People with mental health issues could then be connected with available health care services.
People with drug problems could then be connected with available rehabilitation centers.
You get the idea.
Here's the rub. It is those providers who should be actively reaching out to law enforcement to let them know what they offer — cops are great at divining truth amid a murky morass of lies, but they cannot inherently know that the building down on 3rd and Main has a clinic offering mental health counseling to underprivileged individuals.
The nonprofit and faith-based agencies that provide services such as family reunification, drug detoxification, family counseling, job training, veterans' services, and mental health counseling have to be better partners to police. They should proactively reach out to police and explain in full what they provide. Those services should be well known to police.
In some places these partnerships are more successful, in part because they have been formalized and codified into organizations like Homeless Outreach Teams, comprised of representatives from myriad stakeholders. These organizations are like an army, with the social services equivalents of infantry, cavalry, and artillery.
Macro, Not Micro
I concede that not everybody wants to be helped. Some people are perfectly content to live under a tarp under the freeway overpass, or in one of the "Tent Cities" cropping up in places like Los Angeles' so-called Skid Row, or the abovementioned Portland or San Francisco. Some homeless are "travelers" — kids in their 20s drifting aimlessly from city to city. Those people will continue to primarily be the police officer's problem.
But I would suggest that many homeless people would accept some form of help.
For example, earlier this week, an officer in Tallahassee (FL) helped shave a homeless man's beard so the man could apply for a job at a local McDonald's restaurant. The moment was captured on cell phone video, and posted to Facebook.
On a micro level, this single interaction may make a big difference in the life of that one man. That may have been is turning point to a better future.
And it was certainly wonderful to know that millions of people across the country got to see the kind of compassion that police officers demonstrate every day in America.
But we need to address the homelessness problem from a macro level, not a micro level.
For that, we need more than an individual cop's kindness.
We need an army.