Homelessness is a problem in every community. When you don’t have a clear police homeless policy in place, your department can become a lightning rod waiting to be struck. Officer Daniel McDonald (of the Tampa PD) plays much of this out in his Top 10 Reasons to Start a Police Homeless Outreach Program (and How) presentation. His third reason—”Liability” (pages 52–55)—is especially eye-catching. In essence, McDonald points out that, in the public eye, much of homeless police policy is all too often seen as “criminalizing homelessness.” This isn’t just inaccurate: That perception unfairly obscures how hard it is for officers to address homelessness in your communities.
Police Homeless Policy: Addressing Mental Health, Disability, and Substance Use
Officer McDonald was formative in setting Tampa’s police homeless policy and launching their police homeless outreach programs and Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). He notes that homelessness is an especially challenging problem because it is almost invariably entangled with physical disabilities, mental health issues, and substance abuse.
In recent years, most researchers in the United States, Australia, and the UK have found consistently high correlations between mental health disorders, substance use/dependence, chronic health problems, and homelessness. According to most estimates, roughly 70% of homeless people suffer mental illness; nearly 90% have a chronic physical health condition, and around 60% use/abuse substances. Those numbers add up to well over 100%—making it clear that most of the homeless individuals you encounter will be suffering at least two of these. It’s estimated that around 40% are “tri-morbid,”—meaning that they have all three factors contributing to their situation.
In other words, when you’re on a call involving a homeless situation, you’re almost certainly walking into a mental health issue mixed with a chronic illness or substance use case. Nearly half the time, it’s all three.
How can you train for that?
Simulation Training and Police Homeless Policy
The issue of mental health and homeless training is what inspired the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to develop their Mental Illness Response Program (MIRP). Central to this program is creating a forum in which officers can practice quickly and correctly distinguishing pre-assaultive indicators apart from signs of distress, agitation, and confusion that are not indicative of impending violence.
To accomplish this, they’ve relied heavily on immersive training simulators like the MILO Range. These use flexible branching scenarios, recorded in HD or 4K video by local film crews. The system allows instructors to escalate and de-escalate the situation as needed to provide a constructive outcome based on actions the trainee took during the simulation. Nonetheless, each scenario is entirely reproducible, so trainees can consistently force themselves to work outside their comfort zones—practicing your department’s procedure and sticking to your police homeless policy while under pressure.
By building emotional resiliency and situational awareness through scenario-based training, officers are prepared to see, process, and move on with their job. They are primed to be as effective as possible at some of the worst possible moments.