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Urban Police - Policing The Homeless

percent persons population departments

Historically, the police role included providing shelter to homeless persons. During the late 1800s, the Boston Police Department was responsible for lodging homeless, and the Philadelphia police department offered lodging to 100,000 citizens a year (Monkkonen). After 1900, care for the homeless became the responsibility of social service agencies; however, the problem of homelessness still influences the activities of patrol officers. Police routinely handle calls from business owners and residents requesting that homeless persons be removed from the neighborhood. Furthermore, homeless persons are often crime victims.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the homeless population increased significantly. Although reports vary greatly, a median estimate of the number of homeless in the late 1980s was 400,000 (Jencks). It has also been suggested that deinstitutionalization policies have led to larger numbers of mentally ill persons in the community, some of whom inevitably become homeless. In addition to increases in the number of homeless, changes in the character of this population have occurred. Previously, the homeless population was largely male substance abusers and alcoholics. During the 1980s, larger numbers of families, including women and children, were forced into a life on the streets. Changes in the character of the homeless population has been described as the "new homeless problem" (Walker, 1999).

The image of the homeless has changed from "harmless bums" to those committing predatory crimes. For example, the Santa Monica (California) Police Department reported that the homeless accounted for 25 percent of burglary and 19 percent of robbery arrests in 1985; these figures jumped to 53 percent and 49 percent in 1990 (Melekian). Other research has found, however, that homeless men are more likely to be arrested for minor crimes such as public intoxication, shoplifting, and violations of city ordinances, concluding that the depiction of homeless men as serious predatory criminals is faulty (Snow et al.).

Most departments do not have a specialized plan for handling these problems. One survey of police departments in 1991 showed that 40 percent of departments did not keep records regarding contact with the homeless, and 50 percent provide no specialized training to officers dealing with this population (Plotkin and Narr). As a result, police response to the "new homeless problem" varies greatly. For example, in the early 1990s, Los Angeles designated a fifty-square-block area where homeless persons are allowed to sleep on the streets. Community policing officers in Seattle distribute blankets and make referrals to homeless shelters and drug abuse treatment centers (Walker, 1999). In comparison, aggressive order maintenance tactics used in New York City encourage the use of arrest for minor offenses, including vagrancy, loitering, and public intoxication.

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