Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of homeless encampments. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.

Stakeholders

In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following groups have an interest in the homeless encampments problem and should be considered for the contribution they might make in gathering information about the problem and responding to it:

  • Social services agencies. Government agencies and non-government organizations that serve homeless populations are obviously interested in improving living conditions for their clients, but they also are interested in reducing the level of resources consumed by relatively few chronically needy clients. They also have data that police may not have and expertise and resources to improve responses.
  • Religious and charitable organizations serving the transient population. As with social services agencies, these groups are interested in improving transients' lives. Their mission, however, may focus on meeting transients' daily needs (food, clothing, and emergency shelter) and preclude involvement in strategies that will ultimately reduce the need to carry out this missionary work. These organizations can sometimes provide monetary support for programs, and their staff and congregations can be valuable sources of volunteers. Religious organizations also can help shape the moral content of public policy discussions about how to respond to transient encampments.
  • People living in homeless encampments. Transients themselves clearly have a strong interest in this problem. Although they may not prefer life in encampments, they still regard these places as their homes and expect that others will respect their privacy and personal belongings. Transients can be a valuable source of information about who lives in the encampments and the activities of other transients.  
  • Residents living close to homeless encampments. These people suffer disproportionately from crimes committed by transients. Their interest may not extend beyond pushing the problem out of their immediate area. Nearby residents can provide information about individual transients and the nature of crime and disorder associated with transients in particular camps.
  • Businesses. Businesses are frequent targets of transients' crimes and the social and physical disorder accompanying them. Because businesses' viability can be adversely affected by transients in the area, business owners are motivated to support practical solutions. They can provide resources for programs once they discover they can effectively reduce the problems that impact their businesses.
  • Community as a whole. Efforts to address homeless encampments and homelessness in general are often met with hostility from the public, perhaps because they resent public resources being spent on people seen as unproductive members of society, or because they think providing services will encourage more transients to move into the area. Many members of the community would rather push the problem out of their area than deal with it in a meaningful way. Depending on your response, citizens can provide volunteer or financial support.
  • Media. How your local media cover homeless encampments can influence the community's perception of the issue. Stories about transients and interviews with representatives of homeless advocacy organizations can be quite compelling; however, if this is the only side of the issue the public hears, you may have trouble galvanizing support for problem-solving. Involving the media in early planning efforts can work to your advantage, especially if they can convey your message that solving this social problem will likely take much longer than expected and involve some false starts and failures. 
  • Politicians. Elected officials have an interest in being responsive to citizens' calls for tougher enforcement of laws concerning transients' public behavior. At the same time, they can direct funding toward projects they think will address the issue. Involve them at the early planning stages to ensure their cooperation later when fiscal resources may be needed.
  • City officials. People who run the local government's daily operations want to increase efficiency and would be receptive to strategies to reduce the demand for public resources from a small number of transients. If an encampment needs to be removed, city officials can provide personnel such as zoning and land use enforcement officers and parks and recreation staff. Human or social services offices can recommend nonprofit organizations to help identify the problem and create a successful strategy. Also, these local government offices may be involved in advocating for and coordinating the receipt of HUD (Community Development Block Grants, Emergency Shelter Grants and HOME Investment Trust funds) and state resources for addressing homelessness issues.
  • County officials. County officials are concerned with ensuring a coordinated regional approach to homelessness issues. Counties also control state "pass through" resources. Although it may be tempting to move the problem from your jurisdictional boundaries, it is more responsible to create a strategy that does not impact neighboring communities.
  • Police leadership. Given the controversy that typically surrounds interventions involving the chronically homeless, it is important to keep the chief and command staff advised of the details of the project and even to include them in planning. They may have insights to offer about the political realities in your jurisdiction and can provide a buffer between you and concerned advocates, media, and politicians. 

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of homeless encampments, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses.

Transients

  • How many people live in homeless encampments in your jurisdiction?
  • What is known about them? Where did they live before the encampment? What are their gender, age, race or ethnicity, and employment histories? How many of them have chronic health issues, substance abuse problems, and/or mental illness?
  • What is known about the criminal victimization of transients living in encampments?
  • What is known about the criminal behavior of transients living in encampments?
  • How long have these individuals been living in encampments?
  • Why do transients report living in encampments instead of other types of shelters?
  • Do the transients know about and use community social services, such as soup kitchens, drop-in centers, shelters, job training, and substance abuse treatment?

Counting Transients

To find the number of "unsheltered homeless people" aggregated to your county or state level, look at the data compiled annually for HUD as part of the application for Continuum of Care grants. 2005-2008 Population/Subpopulation reports, available at http://www.hudhre.info/index.cfm?do=viewHomelessRpts, include the number of unsheltered homeless people in your area. This report does not give the exact number of people living in homeless encampments in municipalities. However, if this is your type of jurisdiction, it is still a good starting point to get a sense of the problem and the percentage of homeless people who are unsheltered in your area. This web site also lists HUD Continuum of Care grant recipients – organizations you should contact for data on chronic homelessness in your community.

There are three primary methods for counting unsheltered homeless people. Your community's characteristics determine which is most appropriate. The first, called the "public places" method, is a direct count of people in a non-shelter location; e.g., walking through a homeless encampment and taking a head count. This works if you know where all the encampments are and can reliably count everyone residing there. The second method is to augment the counts in non-shelter locations with an interview component, helping to ensure the people counted were not counted twice and actually are homeless. Conducting interviews is recommended if you also want to get information about this population as part of your project's scanning phase. You could learn what services the subjects use and what it would take for them to leave the chronically homeless lifestyle. The third method involves counting users of soup kitchens and other social services for the homeless. One advantage of this strategy is that it allows you to reach people who may not be living in known, public areas. A Guide to Counting Unsheltered Homeless People (available at http://www.hudhre.info/documents/counting_unsheltered.pdf) discusses the pros and cons of each method and is an invaluable resource.43

For an example of a questionnaire used to count homeless people, look at the Texas Homeless Network's point-in-time survey and training guide for volunteers. Most states conduct annual surveys to measure the size of their homeless population; here is an example of the questionnaire used in Colorado (http://www.colorado.gov/cich/documents/Final_Statewide_Homeless_Survey.pdf).

Time and location patterns

  • Are there seasonal patterns to homeless encampments? Are there more people in such places in the summer or the winter?
  • Where are the encampments located? (You might use aerial surveillance and on-board infra-red, or night-vision goggles to identify camps and ingress/egress points.)
  • How accessible or remote are the encampments? How visible are they from a distance?
  • Who owns or has jurisdiction in the encampment areas for policing, landscaping, maintenance, etc.? Are the encampment sites publicly or privately owned?
  • Why are the encampments located where they are? Are they close to food and water sources or transportation? Are they concealed? Do they provide shelter from weather?

Encampments

  • How elaborate are the encampments? Are there shelters, cooking facilities, bathing facilities, potable and non-potable water sources, and security features?
  • Are there health and safety concerns, such as unsafe fire situations and poor waste management?
  • What is the allowable land use (according to municipal code) of the area where the encampment is located?
  • Who else uses the area around the encampment? Do transients and "legitimate" users conflict over the user of this area?

Public attitudes

  • What are your community's standards regarding street behavior? In entertainment districts, do people prefer things to be orderly or more exciting to attract people?
  • How many citizen complaints do you receive about homeless encampments? What, precisely, is the nature of those complaints?

Demand on police resources

  • How many crimes are committed against people living in homeless encampments? What is the nature of these crimes? How serious are they?
  • How many calls for service concerning encampment areas does your agency receive?
  • How many calls for service concerning nuisance problems involving transients does your agency receive? How many of these calls are from businesses and residents close to encampments?
  • How many incidents involving disputes over public space does your agency handle?
  • How much time and money does your agency spend dealing with problems associated with homeless encampments?

Current responses to the problem

  • How has the homeless encampment problem in your jurisdiction been handled in the past? How is it handled now? Is the current response adequate and appropriate?
  • What laws currently regulate homeless encampments? Are these laws adequate and/or constitutional?
  • What is being done now in your community to address chronic homelessness? Does your community have a long-range plan to end chronic homelessness?†
  • How many contacts with chronically homeless people do members of your department make? What are the outcomes of these contacts?
  • Does your department have any formal policies with shelters and social services agencies regarding referrals and transportation of chronically homeless people?
  • What efforts have been made by social services providers to discourage transients from living in encampments? Have such efforts been successful?

† Many communities have created and adopted "Ten-Year Plans" as part of a federal government initiative to eliminate chronic homelessness. More information about ten-year plans (and a list of the more than 200 communities that have one in place) is on the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness web site: www.usich.gov.

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses to determine the seriousness of your problem, and after you implement them to determine the effectiveness of your responses. Take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Reponses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

Following are potentially useful effectiveness measures of responses to homeless encampments:

  • Reduced numbers of encampments and transients living in them
  • Less crime in areas around the encampments
  • Fewer or less serious crimes committed against transients living in encampments
  • Fewer calls for police service to the encampment area
  • Fewer calls for police service for nuisance problems caused by transients
  • Fewer calls for police service by businesses and residents concerning transients
  • Fewer citizen complaints about transient behavior and encampments
  • Fewer health and safety hazards associated with encampments
  • Reduced number of conflicts between transients and others over use of public space
  • Lower costs of police response dealing with homeless encampments
  • Increased use of social services by transients
  • Improved communication between the police and social services providers