LAPD struggles to find way to deal with homeless camps

According to a report filed with the city’s police commission late last year, 38 Los Angeles Police Department officers who work for the Homeless Outreach Partnership Endeavor “contacted” 12,300 homeless people over a nine-month period. But the police can’t tell the public if any of those homeless folks received specific help, according to news reports.

“We have to revisit the numbers we’re reporting and what they mean,” Commander Dominic Choi told Southern California Public Radio. “We’re not caseworkers, so we can’t follow up.” In other words, they don’t know what those contacts mean. Police aren’t allowed to say anything given confidentiality requirements. And they are law-enforcement officers – not social workers – so it’s unreasonable for them to act like caseworkers even when they engage in something that resembles casework.

Supporters of the plan say it could provide needed aid to homeless people, but opponents argue that social workers rather than police are best able to offer needed assistance.

Basically, the officers go to the homeless encampments a few days before city workers come by to demolish the structures, clean up the mess and shoo people away. The officers give them warning and referrals to receive help with food, medical care or housing. The LAPD says that more than 3,500 of the homeless accepted some referral. But the news report says that it’s “unclear” how many of them then received services. And homeless advocates note that accepting referral isn’t a big deal. Who isn’t going to accept the information from a police officer?

The LAPD wants the public to believe that this is about helping the homeless. But Choi, who heads the effort for the agency, told the radio network that the main mission of the program is to protect city workers and enforce health regulations. That’s a reasonable point. But too often police give fines and citations to homeless people. Given homeless people’s lack of resources and myriad problems, that might not be the most helpful approach, given that the referrals may seem like an afterthought.

Then there was the case last year where Los Angeles police officers shot to death a homeless man on Skid Row. Even though the DA and police commission found the shooting to be justified, it’s not unusual for homeless people to distrust police visits. Given the rampant mental illness and drug-abuse problems among the homeless population, if the city increases police interactions this could realistically lead to more deadly encounters.

“We have to do something,” Choi was quoted as saying. Indeed. But the main question is whether that something should come from the police department or from social workers.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at [email protected]


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  1. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 23 January, 2018, 16:24

    This is an eye-opening column, Steve!

    I’m thinking the police have better things to do than count homeless populations that dwell among us. So do social services caseworkers. Maybe there is another way…

    Where I live the homeless count is done by volunteers under the supervision of somebody or other, maybe the police & caseworkers. They do the same thing as you describe is being done in Los Angeles.

    Our homeless problem has grown by leaps and bounds in the past forty-five years. One reason is the coalition of charities that offer free food and other services to anyone who shows up, and they do not screen their beneficiaries. Consequently, we have bands of homeless people moving through what used to be decent neighborhoods, rich and poor, every single day of the week. They use public and private property for latrines, shoot heroin and meth in our front and back yards, leave their belongings all over the place, pull garbage out of trash cans and leave it for somebody else to clean up, and sometimes attack people without warning.

    The police have few options for dealing with them because of the laws and the bad local government policies regarding vagrancy and mental illness.

    Mentally-ill people cannot be considered responsible enough to live in an unsupervised situation. Most need a secure place where they cannot roam abroad at will and where they will be given their medication, regular meals, a clean bed, and so forth. This does not have to be a hospital mental ward or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It could be more like the old-fashioned sanitoriums where trained caring staff made sure they were looked after and had opportunities to do something creative or useful (see the historical drama “Longitude” for an idea of what I am talking about). If they are not in a safe environment, they are a threat to themselves and others, and they are also victims of abuse and crime. This is not being free. It is hell.

    I think we need a whole new approach. I think an alliance of public and private agencies working together with trained volunteers could tackle the job that needs to be done. Teams lead by a police officer, paramedic, mental health specialist & social worker could supervise volunteers who could do the counts while the professionals conducted interviews and evaluations. That way, each foray into a homeless camp would come out with numbers, names and case-profiles for future reference.

    The past two years the town where I live has had a Veterans Housing program where we were able to refer homeless veterans to. In one twelve-month period, 100 homeless vets were given houses or apartments to live in. This past year there were more, but they were also placed in housing.

    In the meantime, more homeless have moved into our city from elsewhere. Some are from Orange County, some from LA, some from out-of-state. The problem here is out of control and getting worse.

    Now the city where I live is talking about instituting the Housing First program–the one that everyone was raving about but has been exposed as a lot of hooey. One of the reasons is that the housing is being proposed in the neighborhoods where we live. Even if they were going to screen the people before placing them in the housing, it would still be a disaster for our neighborhoods. But, there is going to be no screening of the homeless who get the housing, which means mentally-ill, addicts, criminals, sex offenders, families with children, women, elders and young people alone all together in one apartment house, rooming house, or boarding house.

    Since the largest segment of the homeless population is mentally-ill people, this is disastrous for them and for our neighborhoods. These poor folks are divided into just plain mental, drug-addicted, criminal, and etc. Each needs a different set of services.

    The next issue is drug-addicts–some mentally-ill and some not. These are usually people who do not want to go straight because they are too messed up to make a decision like that. They are a threat to everyone’s health & safety.

    The next issue is criminals. These people may also be drug addicts. They are a threat to everyone’s health & safety.

    The next issue is panhandlers. They are a nuisance, and some are addicts and/or criminals. They are all a public nuisance, and some are threats to everyone’s health & safety.

    The next issue is families with children, people in temporary trouble, and so forth. They will usually accept help, but seem not to know where to go to get it. Some have tried and failed. They need counselling, guidance and further services until they get their lives straightened out.

    Okay, so if there is a way to make this problem worse, I’m sure our fearless leaders will find it.

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  2. Max
    Max 7 February, 2018, 04:05

    Providing an effective social housing might not be the key to getting to the homeless people, but is at least one way to reduce the problem.

    Homeless people did not choose to be homeless – they have been “made” to leave their homes due to the inner problems and addictions or health issues.

    The government should take care of these people – and I hope Trump will get the policy straight in that matter.

    Max from

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Steven Greenhut

Steven Greenhut

Steven Greenhut is CalWatchdog’s contributing editor. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”

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