After the Webinar: Police Response to Homelessness. Q&A with Dr. Sean Goodison

Webinar presenter Dr. Sean Goodison answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Police Response to Homelessness: Promising Practices and Partnerships for Criminal Justice Professionals. Here are just a few of his responses.


Audience Question: What do researchers attribute the increase of mental illness within the chronic homeless population to? 

Sean Goodison: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the starting point for that from my read of the research is going to be the deinstitutionalization. That was kind of a turning point moving away from kind of the medical model, which is there’s always a lot of give and take on this type of issue. And certainly, deinstitutionalization. And having individuals with severe mental health challenges being not in an institutional setting. Certainly, has a great number of issues, that I don’t think anyone is really necessarily prepared for in the social space. So, it’s not something that, let’s say 50 plus years ago, police were dealing with as much simply because you had no population that would then be institutionalized. But then, following that, which, again, there are actually some, some benefits of deinstitutionalization that the medical model had at a number of challenges. But there just wasn’t the kind of hand-off to provide the needed resources for the population when it is outside of the institutional setting. So that leads to a lot of challenges, and that the police ended up dealing and correlated with chronic homelessness. Because you have those co-occurring challenges of whether to maintain living arrangements, whether that’s through, whatever it means, whether it’s with family, whether it is through one’s own ability or resources. There’s a key challenge even when there are resources available, individuals will turn them down. Some people will say, “Oh, well, these people are just flat, out refusing resources.” And it’s not really that simple. There can be very good reasons why you’re not going to potentially take resources from law enforcement if you are in a certain situation and environment. But, at the same time, it’s a challenge. And, if there is a kind of self-selection to some extent, individuals with some severe mental health challenges may not be in that right mental space, even at that particular moment, when engaged by law enforcement. Even if, 90% of the time, they’re perfectly fine and would think “Maybe I will take advantage of some of those resources,” but may not be able to. So, it leads to some degree of almost cumulative disadvantage of the challenge to right the ship and also a challenge to potentially grab that life preserver too.



Audience Question: Does research support the practice of conducting field interviews to capture the identities of homeless persons so they’re in an agency’s RMS system and then making that information available through their information-sharing systems? 

Sean Goodison: That’s a good question. The part of the problem is that there’s really not that much research on that on the law enforcement side of this equation. So that’s kind of your starting point for the discussion which is always an inherently unsatisfying starting point to say, “We really don’t know.” But at the same time, part of the challenges and part of the needs and part of the transition is at least to have someone. It could be law enforcement, this is going to depend on a jurisdiction, because there are, you know, there’s some support for different avenues and in different organizations, different elements of jurisdictional government having different roles. So sometimes it’s the police who may be in that in data collection mode, maybe it’s public health with police that are in the data collection, and maybe it’s public health alone that’s in data collection. There’s certainly a need to have better data, at least in terms of, you know, the general populations and in what’s happening, what the experience is, and what the context is. Now, it always gets a little dicier when it’s identifying individuals. And that ends up being a kind of a jurisdictional call as to where they want to go. I don’t think there’s any research that necessarily supports almost keeping an official name and identity census of a homeless population. So that may end up being more of a, you know, what the policymakers and leaders want to want to do there. But there certainly is a need to have richer information about individuals who are experiencing homelessness. Like from the 1993 report, there’s really no interest in knowing who is homeless in a jurisdiction, even when there’s an acknowledgment that this is predominantly our problem. That I think researches established. Listen, you need to have more information to at least start to make large decisions and policies, whether that means identifying individuals, and maybe that goes down a road where it’s easier to help for track for treatment and for, stuff like that. But then that also ends up being a little more of a potential informed consent area of if one wants to identify then we can take anything that you want to give us. But if one doesn’t want to identify, requiring some sort of identification may in fact dissuade or deter potential use of services.



Audience Question: Over the coming years, can you anticipate whether communities are more or less likely to continue to use law enforcement as a primary means of addressing homeless issues? 

Sean Goodison: Yeah, that’s a $64,000 question for those who are old enough to remember what the $64,000 question represents, definitely. When it comes down to it, law enforcement is going to likely be the front-facing government entity that is going to be engaging with the unsheltered homeless population. I think there’s a lot of push and also a lot of desire, from law enforcement to not necessarily be the ones that own it. I always think of the example from —– County in Florida and Sheriff’s office there, that saw significant unsheltered homeless population. Especially with the sheriff’s office who’s also running a jail was realizing we’ don’t have any other tools, we were just locking people. Forget it. We’re going to do something different. You know, create Safe Harbor, create a whole apparatus. And they’ve always joked, “We’re happy to give it to whoever else in the jurisdiction, whatever government entity wants to take this over we’ll just pass it along. We’ll give you all the notes, and you go forward.” But no one has decided to take them up on their offer. But there is I think, especially in the coming years, as we start to really think about reform and defunding and other challenges associated with law enforcement and policing, and whatnot. I mean, there’s going to be a place to wonder exactly what the scope is, what police should be doing, and what police also want to be doing? And I imagine, as we’ve been seeing the solution when it comes to addressing challenges, people experiencing homelessness, it’s going to be multi-disciplinary. I don’t think there’s any way that the police are going to be totally out of it because they’re that first facing forward, respond to any type of call challenge, jack of all trades. But at the same time, I also wouldn’t suspect that the push going forward is going to be it has to be all police all the time. In part, because of community demand. And in part, because I think police also recognize that these are challenges that they can best manage. Police are not going to fix homelessness. They are not going to address the root causes. Law enforcement has great skills that can be tailored and use. And there’s kind of an acknowledgment that other elements of jurisdiction or of a local government might be the ones who are, you’ll have the best force multiplier to address at least certain parts of the challenge. And I think that’s where a lot of the case studies that you see in the 2018 report, you’ll see kind of that trend towards that, multi-disciplinary. That change-up where police are not going to be out of it. But I think, as we move forward, police aren’t going to be the only ones in it.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of Police Response to Homelessness: Promising Practices and Partnerships for Criminal Justice Professionals.




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