Homelessness and how to address its social, public health and criminal implications has stirred strong reactions from every corner of our region and unfortunately has led to polarization about how to solve some of the toughest issues our communities face.
Rather than engage in another round of “I’m right and you’re wrong” we should make constructive change and do something about these problems. A good start would be to recognize there are numerous different pathways that lead to homelessness, and that criminal-justice-based interventions, including the leverage of incarceration for criminal behavior, can and should be a part of our conversation.
A great deal of focus on “let’s help the homeless” versus “let’s lock up those criminals” has led to a perception that any involvement of law enforcement must lead to “criminalizing homelessness” and the obligatory response: “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”
Contrary to a popular and misguided belief, law enforcement has no desire for mass arrests or filling the jails, nor are they ignoring obvious criminal behavior. Law enforcement is at the front line. In many communities in our state, the most compassionate, generous and helpful people working with homeless people are our law-enforcement officers. They work diligently to offer and facilitate services, help people get on track, and in many cases provide money out of their own pockets for those who genuinely need some support, and they usually do it without asking for any recognition or reimbursement.
Every day around our state, members of law enforcement are placed in a position where they are clearing storefronts and other properties of campers and their belongings, only to later encounter some of the same people during criminal investigations.
Later in the day, officers will take reports of theft, car prowls and littering involving homeless persons, both as victims and as suspects. As the day winds down, officers will be faced with vulnerable and sometimes desperate people trying to survive and looking for a place to spend the night and not be robbed or assaulted. The next day, it all starts again.
In my experience, there are three predominant ways homelessness is expressed in our communities. It is critical that each be viewed separately and not by housing status but by behavior, requiring differing approaches.
• The first are those who need and will accept help, who have had a misfortune or have made bad choices and who find themselves, unwillingly, in a situation where they clearly need a hand up. We need to offer services — housing and treatment for behavioral problems and addiction when persons in this group are amenable to them.
• The second are those with chronic addiction problems, who are frequently accompanied by mental health issues as well. Offering services is not enough for this group, because of the nature of addiction. We cannot rely on people to “help themselves” without a negative incentive, such as criminal charges or jail if they do not engage in treatment.
• The third are “criminal transients” who choose to live outside, are entirely resistant to any intervention, have no interest in changing their lifestyle, and engage in criminal activity to support themselves. Many hide under the umbrella of “homeless” to gain sympathy and handouts, but they often victimize and prey on truly homeless persons. They are criminals and we must hold them accountable for their crimes. To view them as homeless is a disservice to those who want and will accept help.
We need robust crisis intervention, mental-health services and housing programs for those who want and will accept help. We should get them off the streets, into a safe place, and provide wraparound services for success.
For individuals facing chronic addiction, we need to stop reinforcing a destructive and, ultimately, often fatal lifestyle by allowing unsanctioned encampments in the name of compassion. It is not compassionate to support a status quo that allows for continued addiction and the criminal acts required to support that addiction.
Addiction and treatment is not an exact science. It takes repeated attempts at recovery and relapses are frequent. We need to get over our collective resistance to the leverage of criminal sanctions and incarceration as part of getting people into treatment.
Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) in jail and pre-arrest Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) are programs that have had demonstrated success. Unfortunately, because we continue to view the truly homeless, chronic addicts and criminal transients as all the same group, too many jurisdictions have begun uniformly dismissing all charges against everyone in all three groups, because they do not want to “criminalize homelessness.”
A balanced approach provides a more comprehensive and, potentially, more productive response to the crisis. The Legislature must fund more robust mental health services, LEAD grants for areas around our state, and MAT grants for our jails. These programs recognize the need for ongoing monitoring and follow-up, and the need to have the court, law enforcement and possibly jail involved as an immediate consequence when necessary.
Nonprofits, health-care providers and other contractors who provide the government-funded services need to work together instead of competing with each other for public dollars and support. City and county officials have to recognize that talking in terms of broad policies and system changes does not mean much to a family who has to step over needles and garbage in their public parks.
Finally, we need to stop using law enforcement as a political football and recognize that they need support to assist the homeless, get addicts into treatment, and hold criminal transients accountable.