Policing the Homeless: One Community’s Strategy

By Steve Marcin 
Law enforcement officers are depicted assisting a homeless man on the side of a road.


Local police departments often address sensitive issues regarding the impact of homeless populations on public safety. To this end, the Anaheim, California, Police Department (APD) has found a new approach for police contact with homeless individuals. The goals of this approach are to reduce homeless-related calls for service, provide better assistance to this growing population, and improve the safety and quality of life in communities.


In 2013 the APD responded to an average of 503 homeless-related calls for service each month, most of which were public nuisance or disturbance related. This was a 27 percent increase from 2012.


The traditional approach to these low-level incidents entailed counseling the individuals involved and seeking their cooperation. Unless one of the parties had an arrest warrant or an arrest was necessary, the individuals usually complied, and the officer moved on to the next call. Although the incident may have been resolved, the homeless person’s situation remained unchanged. Consequently, there was a high likelihood of a repeat incident involving the same individual.

Homeless people pose a unique issue with regard to public safety. Some individuals attempt to hide their existence; however, others establish themselves in parks or other public places. Although living on the streets is not a crime, a sizeable homeless population impacts community safety and quality of life. Residents call police about tent camps, littering, public urination and defecation, people sleeping on benches, panhandling, and displays of public intoxication or possible mental illness.

The traditional incident-based, reactive approach to homeless-related calls does not improve the safety or well-being of a community. Law enforcement agencies should adopt a problem-solving philosophy to diminish the probability of repeat calls by assisting homeless people in escaping from life on the street. 

Lieutenant Marcin serves with the Anaheim, California, Police Department.
 Lieutenant Marcin serves with the Anaheim, California, Police Department.



APD’s approach centers on pursuing resources to help homeless people get off the street at the time of the call for service. The department established its Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), responsible for making connections between individual needs and available resources. The team is supervised by a police sergeant, and it focuses on three functional components—the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), Homeless Resources Collaborative (HRC), and homeless liaison officers.

Psychiatric Emergency Response Team  

APD determined that individuals suffering from mental illness had the greatest need. The department formed a partnership with the Orange County Health Care Agency’s Adult Mental Health Services. A mental health clinician and two full-time officers ride together. This team is the first responding unit to any calls related to mental illness. When not responding to calls, the team proactively patrols for individuals exhibiting signs of a possible mental health crisis. Indicators include animated or unusual behavior, sleeping in public places, and wandering in or near traffic. In addition, the PERT actively engages homeless individuals at every opportunity. If the person does not require assistance, that individual often can refer the team to someone else in need.

The mental health worker provides a prompt evaluation and serves as the case manager for an individual in need of continual mental health assistance. This clinician arranges for a follow-up for sustained county services, and the person becomes part of this professional’s active caseload.

Homeless Resources Collaborative

Assistance comes in many forms. Sometimes one act—transportation to a caring family member, admittance to a sober-living home, job training, provision of new clothes, or assistance with entitled benefits—can help an individual escape the street and discover a better life. However, costs associated with this assistance generally are not included in a law enforcement agency’s budget. To provide these resources APD created HRC, which consists of a small group of nonprofit foundations, faith-based organizations, and county service providers.

The success of “on the call” assistance is based on immediately available resources. Therefore, participating organizations are expected to respond to an officer’s call around-the-clock. In addition, HRC meets monthly to discuss projected needs, current assistance efforts, and fundraising ideas and events.

Homeless Liaison Officers

Each homeless-related call for service presents an opportunity to help. Volunteers from every patrol shift serve as homeless liaison officers. These individuals maintain their primary patrol responsibility and remain on their respective shifts or patrols; however, they are the first officers dispatched to any homeless-related service call. These officers receive specialized mental health training and information about the county’s nonprofit and faith-based services available to homeless people. Mental health interventions, veterans’ resources, shelter, job training, detoxification, narcotics programs, and family reunification assistance are among the services provided. In addition to training and information, these liaison officers have backpacks containing bus passes, meal and hotel vouchers, identification card forms, gasoline vouchers, and hygiene kits. They also have access to storage lockers containing clothing, umbrellas, blankets, and nonperishable foods and dry goods.

“Homeless people pose a unique issue with regard to public safety.”

Homeless liaison officers ensure that all available resources are accessed at the time of the call. This aid is to help homeless people vacate the streets, not to make homelessness more comfortable. Food vouchers, clothing, and temporary shelter are only provided in conjunction with an individual’s commitment to pursue help. Resources are too limited to be disbursed to people who decline assistance and choose to remain homeless.

Not everyone wants help, and it is not illegal to be homeless. However, those who opt to remain on the street must adhere to applicable laws and city ordinances. Law enforcement must ensure that public places are clean, safe, and accessible to everyone; therefore, incarceration remains a viable option. Criminal behavior cannot be tolerated, and homeless individuals who violate the law must be held accountable. APD’s experience has been that arrest and prosecution are not as effective as other methods when attempting to remedy a person’s homeless situation and prevent future police contact.


The goal of HOT is to match the needs of homeless individuals with available resources, goods, and services at the time of every call. The team has achieved success when a connection is made and officers leave the scene with the individual no longer being on the street. They record all contact with the homeless to include the person’s condition, identified needs, assistance offered, and the outcome. The department measures the team’s success by the number of homeless-related service calls. This is based on the premise that a reduction in these calls indicates a decrease in the homeless population or that these individuals are living in a manner that does not generate complaints to the police.


APD established its outreach team in October 2013 with the assignment of a supervising sergeant and creation of the PERT. However, its use of homeless liaison officers did not begin until January 2014.

In 2013 APD personnel responded to an average of 503 homeless-related calls each month. In the first quarter of 2014 the monthly average dropped to 437—a 13 percent reduction. During this time, HOT contacted 461 homeless individuals, of which they assisted 215 in getting off the street. The team had a 47 percent success rate in connecting homeless individuals with appropriate resources and services.

“The traditional incident-based, reactive approach to homeless-related calls does not improve the safety or well-being of a community.”

A prime example of the team’s success occurred in October 2013 when officers encountered a homeless couple living in one of Anaheim’s parks. Before mental illness and drug use took over, the woman worked for a shipping company and her boyfriend worked as a real estate appraiser. The couple told police officers that they had been drug free for months. All they needed was help getting to family members who lived in Tennessee. After officers confirmed the couple actually had family who would support them, they contacted the HRC, which funded transportation for the couple to return to their family.


Law enforcement agencies often deal with the consequences of today’s socioeconomic struggles; however, they need to expand their scope, manner, and approach for addressing homelessness. Many police officers encounter homeless people daily who are in need of assistance, but they often do not have the means to provide that help. Nonprofit and faith-based organizations have funding and resources for outreach and services. By collaborating with these groups, police departments can connect service providers to people who need aid and want to help themselves. The result is improved humanitarian outreach, reduced number of homeless individuals, a grateful and safer community, and fewer calls for service.

“Each homeless-related call for service presents an opportunity to help.”

For additional information Lt. Marcin may be contacted at SMarcin@anaheim.net.

A police officer helps a homeless woman reunite with her family.
Police officers help a woman return to her family in Maryland.
Police officers help a family reunite with a once-homeless family member.
A police officer helps a homeless woman return to her family in Ohio to start a new life.