Police Can’t Be the Main Response to Homeless Camps

Mayor Garcetti meets the HOPE Team, December 9, 2016

The Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian oversight body for LAPD, at a special April 4, 2017, meeting at City Hall, found widespread agreement that businesses and homeowners expect too much from the police when faced with homeless camps near their stores or homes.

Greg Spiegel, Mayor Garcetti’s former top homeless advisor, declared, “For decades, many people’s impulse response to an unwanted homeless person in their neighborhood has been to call the police. This hasn’t worked.”

To get homeless people off the streets requires permanent supportive housing, and for a large percentage, mental health care or substance abuse treatment, all things outside the capacity of the police to provide. At best the police can, with aid from the Sanitation Department, clean up a campsite, which usually just reappears nearby the next day.

Commander Todd Chamberlain

Commander Todd Chamberlain, the police department’s highest ranking officer in charge of homeless work, told the meeting, “There’s some groups that think we do too much – they think we do too much enforcement. And then, on the other side, there’s other community groups, there’s businesses who think we do too little. For law enforcement to try to handle this social problem in an effective and a constitutional and ethical way, that’s a very difficult place to be.”

Last September LAPD created the Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE) program. This pairs specially trained LAPD officers with outreach workers to identify homeless encampments and connect residents to services.

Working closely with the city’s Sanitation Department, the HOPE teams walk a difficult line between getting often unwilling street dwellers to accept services and move into shelters or various levels of housing, while ensuring that neighborhood streets and sidewalks are kept clean. Currently the department is expanding officer training for dealing with the homeless “with compassion and empathy.” We have witnessed a noticeable increase in closure of camps in Southwest Division’s territory in recent months.

An LA Times report on the Police Commission meeting says that police since September have contacted more than 7,500 homeless people and found housing for about 390. Critics often accuse the police of criminalizing the homeless, but it is still true that some of the homeless do criminal things, from theft to drug dealing and assault. In the same seven months, the police arrested 101 homeless people for felonies and 163 for misdemeanors.

Southwest LAPD Officer Paul Evleth tries to persuade homeless campers to vacate empty lot near Jefferson Blvd. and Western Avenue.

Radio station KPCC (89.3) in their online news page said that officers at the Police Commission meeting said nearly half of the homeless they approached refused services. Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, responded that often what was offered did not include long-term housing and wasn’t seen as an improvement on their situation.

“I think the key is to enrich the service proposition that we have and really offer something that’s authentic.” He said that this should now be possible after the passage of the homeless bond act in November and the recent quarter cent sales tax increase for homeless services.