Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Summary of Responses to Homeless Encampments

The table below summarizes the responses to homeless encampments, the mechanisms by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they ought to work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.

Response No. Response How It Works Works Best If... Considerations
General Principles for an Effective Strategy
1 Enlisting community support to address the problem Involving stakeholders early on increases likelihood of support for responses and reduces risk of lawsuits ...there is consensus about how to define the problem and the possible solutions Some advocacy groups are unreceptive to other views and may attempt to derail your efforts
2 Educating the community about homelessness Makes people's expectations of what police can do more realistic; reduces "NIMBY" response ...there is a tradition of civic engagement in the community Some citizens may resist learning about the causes of and effective responses to chronic homelessness if these ideas are contrary to their moral values
3 Educating police officers about homelessness Improves interaction between police officers and homeless people ...the training leads to changes in attitudes and beliefs about the chronically homeless Some officers resent "sensitivity" training
4 Helping with your community's long-range homelessness plan Ensures that police interests are included in the plan ...stakeholders involved in the plan are receptive to input from police Some stakeholders are hostile to the police and do not view them as allies
Providing Alternatives to Homeless Encampments
5 Promoting the "Housing First" model Puts hard-to-place chronically homeless people into housing immediately ...the infrastructure exists in your community Finding locations for these housing facilities can be difficult in some communities
6 Lobbying for more resources for mental health and substance abuse treatment Increases treatment options for those who need them …this treatment is provided in conjunction with housing Citizens resent paying taxes to help people with substance abuse problems and mental illness
7 Regulating structured camping facilities Creates an area for transients to camp safely ...a suitable location can be found that meets community needs The facility may be located on undesirable land far from services transients need
Changing the Physical Environment
8 Clear-cutting of overgrown brush Removes privacy for transients and barriers to encampment detection; assists natural surveillance ...vegetation is not allowed to grow back to previous levels Clearing only small areas at a time may displace transients to nearby spots to set up new encampments
9 Deploying water sprinklers Makes the encampment area wet and the ground less desirable to sit or lie on …sprinklers are set to go off at random times to increase unpredictability Legitimate users of the space, such as picnickers and sunbathers, may be annoyed
10 Encouraging private property owners to secure vacant lots and buildings Access to potential sites for transient encampments is blocked ...measures used to secure the space are checked regularly to ensure they have not been compromised If encampments are established in areas with limited access, it will be harder for the police to find them
11 Removing or altering street furniture Reduces the number of places to comfortably sit or lie down in public ...alterations will not cause physical injury Legitimate users may object to the loss of streetscape amenities
Restricting Access to Goods and Services that Promote Encampments
12 Restricting public feeding of transients Prevents gathering of transients ...the health department provides support Food providers may view restrictions as harsh and uncaring
13 Diverting donations from the public Reduces funds available to support encampment lifestyle ...there is a mechanism to permanently block drop-off sites near encampments Some people will think the response is harsh and uncaring
Reducing Negative Impacts of "Routine Activities" of the Chronically Homeless
14 Installing more public toilets Facilitates compliance with community standards on personal hygiene ...low-cost models are used at the beginning Toilets can become havens for criminals
15 Opening a day resource center Puts transients in direct contact with service providers in one location ...use of facility amenities is tied in with program participation Nearby residents and businesses may work to block location of the facility in their neighborhood
16 Working with land use enforcement officers Sets rules about what activities and uses are permitted; encourages place management by property owner ...transients are encamped on private property Fining property owners may not directly affect the transients encamped on the property
17 Cleaning up camp sites Denies benefits of encampment by removing personal property and amenities ...done in conjunction with legal measures to remove transients This may not work if measures are not taken to prevent the reestablishment of the encampment
18 Shutting down homeless encampments Long-term denial of benefits for transients by removing their personal property ...there is extensive planning before the intervention and multi-agency cooperation for implementation and follow-up Displacement of transients to other encampments is likely unless they are provided with more desirable shelter alternatives
19 Retrieving shopping carts Removes facilitator of transient lifestyle ...there is an ordinance in place making stores responsible for retrieval or containment of carts Local grocery stores may lack resources to prevent theft of carts or collect them regularly
Improving Police Interactions With Transients
20 Developing a departmental policy Sets standards for contacts with homeless people ...the policies and procedures support the departmental mission and values of the department and the community Homeless advocates may scrutinize the policy and its implementation
21 Creating a specialized unit Ensures rapid identification of homeless people in need of help ...police work together with social service providers to access services for homeless Homeless advocates may view police involvement unfavorably
Responses With Limited Effectiveness
22 Enforcing "sidewalk behavior" ordinances Restores orderliness to public spaces and discourages unwanted behaviors ...ordinances can be written so they do not violate constitutional protections In addition to potential legal challenges, these ordinances can reinforce undesired activity by rewarding the offender with a warm bed and food
23 Enforcing ordinances against panhandling Increases the effort required by panhandlers to make money ...there is a large overlap between panhandlers and transients in your community; ordinances do not violate constitutionally protected freedoms Most people who live in transient encampments are not panhandlers
24 Doing "bum" sweeps Temporarily removes transients from public spaces ...if done in conjunction with other strategies In addition to creating an adversarial relationship with the homeless and their advocates, there is no evidence that it works
25 Creating safe zones Isolates transients in an area where their behaviors will disturb fewer people ...services to transition out of chronic homelessness are accessible in the safe zone Industrial zone locations cut off transients from needed services; increased services may attract new homeless people to the area
26 Increasing the capacity of local shelters Provides alternatives to encampment living ...there is an actual demand for shelter services among the transient population Transients find shelters less desirable than encampments, and some transients would be denied entry to shelters