Research & Evaluation | , , ,

Policy Brief: Policing and the Punitive Politics of Local Homelessness Policy

Boston University, Cornell University, and Community Solutions examine how the police are highly influential in and frequently involved in the implementation of homelessness policymaking, which can promote cycles of homelessness.

This policy brief investigates the involvement of the police in responses to homelessness in cities across the country. It amasses a wide array of data, including a novel survey of mayors and details of Homeless Outreach Teams from the nation’s 100 largest cities.

Advocates and researchers agree that solutions to homelessness must address the root causes. Communities need to increase access to quality, affordable permanent housing, and they must provide the necessary social and medical services to support unhoused people remaining stably housed. Yet, local governments may not always follow these evidence-based housing policy programs, instead pursuing punitive policing or the criminalization of homelessness. Such policies do not end homelessness; instead, they may actually promote cycles of homelessness.

This policy brief shows that the police are frequently involved in implementing homelessness policy, with findings such as:

  • Cities’ police departments are highly influential in homelessness policy-making. Seventy-eight percent of mayors say that the police have at least some influence over their homelessness policies — more than people experiencing homelessness and public housing authorities.

  • City staff dedicated to homelessness are commonly located in police departments. Twenty-two percent of mayors housed their homelessness staff in police departments, the second most popular option after social services (38%).

  • Homeless Outreach Teams (HOTs) frequently are either housed in police departments or include formal roles for police officers. Seventy-six percent of HOTs in the nation’s 100 largest cities formally involved the police.

  • A majority of HOTs (59%) include enforcement of civil or criminal infractions or quality of life crimes, as a goal or mission; 43% include encampment removal (including removal of persons and belongings). HOTs featuring police involvement are far more likely to have a dedicated enforcement goal (75% of police-involved HOTs compared to 12.5% of HOTs without designated police involvement).