by Jenavieve Hatch

Aug. 24, 2020

Calling 911 can often do more harm than good for the homeless community. This is part of a HuffPost series looking at alternatives to policing. You can read the other pieces here.

Should I call 911 if I think a person experiencing homelessness is dangerous or unwell?

Homelessness is a crisis in the United States, with an estimated half a million people experiencing homelessness in this country on any given night. Those numbers are only getting worse as gentrification and income inequality skyrocket — and as the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout put more people at risk of losing their housing.

People might be inclined to call police if a homeless person is acting in a way that makes them feel unsafe. But calling the police can have tragic results. In Sacramento, California, in 2016, police shot Joseph Mann, a Black man who was mentally ill and homeless, after a resident called 911 because Mann was wielding a knife. Rather than deescalate what was clearly a psychiatric emergency, the responding officers took an aggressive approach: When they first arrived, they tried to run Mann over. They then shot him 16 times, killing him.

For people having a psychiatric emergency, calling the police can do more harm than good, said Bob Erhlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

“Policymakers expect police to be social workers,” Erhlenbusch said, but mental health professionals trained in deescalation would be better suited to handle certain situations — like the one involving Mann.

What about if I am worried for that person’s health or safety?

The problem is that even if someone calls the police out of concern, the police may not be adequately trained to deescalate the situation — as Mann’s death illustrated — and may instead try to make an arrest, which may turn violent.

People experiencing homelessness ― many of whom are LGBTQ, people of color, and people with disabilities ― are frequently involved with law enforcement for situations that have nothing to do with danger. Thousands of cities and towns have passed measures like anti-loitering laws that result in the criminalization and harassment of the unhoused, leading to a revolving door of incarceration, unemployment and housing instability. Research has shown that a quarter of homeless people have been arrested for simply sitting or lying down in public, and 30% of homeless people living in major cities have been arrested for loitering.

So what should I do instead of calling the police?

Erhlenbusch recommends that people become familiar with local organizations that are better equipped to peacefully respond to a conflict, so that calling 911 doesn’t have to be the automatic response.

“Generally speaking, homeless people are way more afraid of you than you are of them,” said Ehrlenbusch.

A first step is pausing and assessing if you or the person in question ― say, someone sleeping publicly ― are really in danger. Calling the police may be the only option in a situation that’s truly unsafe.

Most major cities have different resources available depending on the underlying issue ― whether you’re concerned about someone experiencing a psychiatric emergency, substance overdose or domestic violence. Educating yourself and saving contact information is a great way to contribute to less policing and harassment of the homeless, which will lead to less dangerous outcomes.

“In 30 years, we’ve never had a serious injury or a death that our team was responsible for,” Ebony Morgan, who works with Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets in Eugene, Oregon, told NPR last month.

How can I better help people experiencing homelessness in general?

Advocating for better programs, especially in places that don’t have alternatives to calling 911, is a good place to start.

Some cities are starting to change their law enforcement systems so that police are no longer the first to respond to calls involving people experiencing homelessness and/or mental health crises. For example, in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed announced last month that police will no longer be the first to respond to calls involving the homeless, mental health issues and conflicts between neighbors. In Los Angeles, the City Council is pushing for social workers to respond to non-violent 911 calls rather than police. And shortly after police killed George Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council voted in favor of defunding police and establishing a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention instead.

Working with your local homeless union or coalition to advocate for such policies is one way to get involved. Donating to groups that run shelters and food banks can also be a way to contribute to a world where fewer people need to live outside.

Where can I go for more information and resources?

  • National Homeless Shelter Directory: An interactive map that shows each state’s shelters for the homeless as well as soup kitchens, rent assistance programs and affordable housing options.

  • National Coalition for the Homeless: A coalition of people currently experiencing homelessness, and those who have previously, committed to ending homelessness through community services, legal support, research and data.

  • True Colors United: An organization specifically focused on supporting members of the LGBTQ community who are experiencing homelessness.

  • YIMBY Action: A nationwide network of housing advocates focused on supporting legislation around affordable housing, stopping the criminalization of homelessness and ending homelessness altogether.

  • Harm Reduction Coalition: A national group of needle exchange providers, public health advocates and drug users focused on providing safe community care for people with substance addictions.

Read other stories in this series

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