Dr. Dena Weiss


By Dr. Dena WeissFaculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

There is much compassion in society for our homeless communities. There is no one race, socioeconomic background, age, or family status that make up the homeless; all types are represented, and all of them suffer financially or emotionally.

The Demographics of the U.S. Homeless

A 2019 estimate by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported that homeless numbers in the United States reached 567,715 people. The following is an estimate of the population of homeless who are both sheltered and unsheltered:

  • Individuals (50% unsheltered and 50% sheltered)
  • Families (9% unsheltered and 91% sheltered)
  • Youth (50% unsheltered and 50% sheltered)
  • Veterans (39% unsheltered and 61% sheltered)

HUD further estimates that 70% of the homeless are males. When comparing ethnic groups, Native Americans experience homelessness more than other groups at the rate of 160 per 10,000 versus the national average of 17 out of 10,000.

Further racial breakdown estimates that whites are less likely to be homeless than multi-racial groups, Hispanics, and Black Americans. Promising data from HUD does show that homelessness has decreased in the last decade by 12%.

Who Should Respond to 911 Calls in Homeless Communities?

Throughout the country, there is an outcry to limit police response in the community. Many people feel that when law enforcement receives a call related to a violation by a homeless person that a social worker should respond instead of the police.

Those who are against police response to 911 calls argue that homeless individuals become defensive and “triggered” when they are approached by a law enforcement officer. The argument is that most offenses by the homeless include trespassing and “quality of life crimes” such as sitting on the sidewalk, urinating in public, or placing tents and other belongings in a public area.

While these offenses are some of the violations that occur, statistics show in Los Angeles alone that crimes involving a homeless person are much more troubling. Between 2017 and 2018, for example, serious crimes involving one or more homeless person increased by 52%, while crime in the city of Los Angeles decreased by 2% during this period.

Crimes where the suspect was homeless include:

  • Rape (78% increase)
  • Robbery (64% increase)
  • Aggravated assault (56% increase)

Crimes where the victim was homeless include:

  • Robbery (89% increase)
  • Larceny (86% increase)
  • Rape (71% increase)

These are serious crimes where the person responding to the call may face a threat and should be a trained law enforcement officer.

Mental Illness Concerns among the Homeless

A 2014 study by researchers Laurence Roy and associates found that between 20-50% of homeless people suffer from mental illness. This is an astounding number of individuals who live on the street with no normalcy to their lives, much less psychological support.

Criminal behavior among the homeless suffering from mental illness is estimated based on numerous studies, but the data is still disturbing. The 2014 study also found the following trends in regard to criminal behavior and homeless individuals with mental illness:

  • 63% – 90% have been arrested at least once
  • 28% – 80% of homeless people have been convicted of a crime
  • 48% – 67% have been imprisoned

Recently, law enforcement administrators have become aware of the need for more scenario-based training on how to deal with the mentally ill. Progress has been made, however. There are now Crisis Intervention Team training (CIT) programs available to police agencies in every state but West Virginia.

Is There A Compromise?

Some agencies are forming teams for homeless response that are made up of a combination of law enforcement officers, medics, and a licensed clinician. The idea behind these teams is that the person will receive medical assistance if needed and a cursory psychological evaluation to determine his or her mental and physical health, thus preventing any unnecessary hospitalizations. Hopefully, gaining the homeless individual’s trust may result in successful outreach and more individually customized recommendations for community services.

Homeless Outreach by Law Enforcement

Many police agencies in Florida, Texas, Colorado, and California have homeless programs called Homeless Outreach Teams (HOTS). Officers partner with agencies such as the Salvation Army, health departments, bus systems, and city management to offer education, encouragement, and enforcement.

[Related: Law Enforcement Agencies Should Create a Mental Health Agency Liaison Officer Position]

Education involves a wealth of information on services provided for the homeless and how to navigate those services. Encouragement offers emotional support and transportation to service providers. Lastly, enforcement is used only as a last resort when laws are being broken. The overall goal is to provide comfort and long-term self-sufficiency.

San Diego Police Introduce the Alpha Program for the Homeless

San Diego has one of the largest homeless populations in the nation. In 2018, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless reported that the homeless population had reached over 8,000 in San Diego.

Desperate to aid these people in need, San Diego police captain Scott Wahl designed the Alpha Program that provides a strong incentive for the homeless to seek shelter. If the individual living on the street has a ticket for certain non-violent infractions, the ticket is voided if they stay in a designated shelter for 30 days.

This successful program has resulted in most of the local shelter’s 50 beds filled every night, as compared to very few beds filled when officers only suggest the availability of shelter.

The Alpha Program is not without problems, however. One shooting death of a security guard has been reported since the program began, and 46% of the participants leave before fulfilling the 30-day stay requirement.

Why There Is No Perfect Answer to 911 Responses Involving the Homeless

Although launching community response units to 911 calls involving the homeless seems like the perfect solution, there are problems. First and foremost is the safety of the civilians who are dispatched with the officer to a potentially volatile situation. The officer is now not only responsible for keeping himself safe, but also with protecting the lives of the others responding with him. That is a heavy burden for an officer.

Another difficult issue to tackle will be the budget for these teams. Will most cities have the funds to have paid counselors on call to assist law enforcement and medics? Many agencies struggle to fund the few victim assistance staff they employ.

Both law enforcement and homeless outreach programs want to work together to develop the safest and most effective method to respond to 911 calls involving the homeless. What type of program to adopt successfully may differ throughout the country, but most importantly, it should be designed to maintain the safety of all who are involved in responding to a 911 call.

About the Author: Dr. Dena Weiss is an associate professor at American Military University, teaching courses in criminal justice and forensic science. She recently retired after working 24 years as a crime scene investigator and fingerprint examiner for a central Florida police department. Prior to that position, she was a serologist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Her court experience includes testifying in more than 200 federal and circuit court cases in over 15 Florida counties.

Dr. Weiss is also an active member of the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System (FEMORS). Her educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Sociology and a master’s degree in Forensic Science from Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a Ph.D. in Business Administration with an emphasis in Criminal Justice.

By Dr. Dena Weiss

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