Cover: The Law Enforcement Response to Homelessness

The Law Enforcement Response to Homelessness

Identifying High-Priority Needs to Improve Law Enforcement Strategies for Addressing Homelessness

Published Aug 25, 2020

by Sean E. Goodison, Jeremy D. Barnum, Michael J. D. Vermeer, Dulani Woods, Siara I. Sitar, Brian A. Jackson

Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 0.5 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.

Research Questions

  1. What is the scope of the homelessness problem, and what is law enforcement's role in responding to it?
  2. What perspectives do police have toward homelessness?
  3. What partnerships and broader solutions can be identified to address the problem of homelessness?
  4. What data, tracking, and evaluation needs can be identified to help law enforcement in this area?

Police often are the first (and sometimes the only) point of government contact for persons experiencing homelessness (PEH). Although it has been common for police to rely on traditional law enforcement powers in dealing with homelessness, many agencies have moved away from arrest-focused methods in favor of approaches that are designed to foster positive relationships with PEH, assess individual needs of each person or area, and guide homeless or unsheltered individuals to the services they require.

To better understand the potential challenges of the law enforcement response to homelessness, the RAND Corporation and the Police Executive Research Forum, on behalf of the National Institute of Justice, convened a workshop of practitioners and researchers to discuss current law enforcement responses to homelessness and identify the highest-priority needs to support and improve existing efforts. During this meeting, four major themes were identified. First, there is a common set of factors underlying homelessness that law enforcement can address. Second, homelessness and overall health and wellness are deeply intertwined issues that should be treated together. Third, effective responses require the collaboration of stakeholders across governments, the private sector, and the community. Finally, acquiring and sharing data is necessary to understand the nature and scope of homelessness in each jurisdiction and to measure the effect of any implemented strategies. All four of these themes are vital to understanding the current challenges confronting the implementation of innovative police responses to homelessness.

Key Findings

There are few — if any — universally applicable solutions to the issue of homelessness

  • Although poverty and the lack of affordable housing are considered the key variables at play, homelessness can manifest differently across the country. Some areas have more challenges with unsheltered homelessness, particularly in locales with a mild climate, while other communities might experience challenges related to sheltered populations. The specific needs of these populations might not be the same.

Homelessness is intertwined with other challenges, such as mental illness and substance use

  • Police often have limited response options beyond taking people to jail or a hospital. Without the necessary systems to remedy the underlying causes of these frequently co-occurring issues, PEH often cycle in and out of the criminal justice system. Even when resources are available, those in need might consistently decline services.

Law enforcement is not equipped to address the underlying causes of homelessness

  • Police must balance the lack of tools and resources to respond in a meaningful way with pressure from the community and business leaders to "do something" about homelessness, while also respecting the legal rights afforded to PEH. Collaborative efforts among law enforcement, other government agencies, social services providers, and community leaders are key to ensuring that individuals are connected with appropriate services.

Experts noted a need for a clear research agenda

  • Data gathered using a comprehensive research agenda would inform new programs, and ongoing data analysis would help define the nature of homelessness in each jurisdiction, inform solutions to fill gaps or needs left unaddressed by existing responses, and evaluate whether new approaches achieve intended outcomes.


  • Conduct evaluations of efforts to address the underlying causes of homelessness and identify the most promising practices and benefits.
  • Identify and publish best practices, protocols, and training for agencies and employees who remove homeless encampments.
  • Identify promising practices with respect to sharing and publishing notice and storage requirements for removal of encampments.
  • Conduct research to identify the most promising practices for improving officer health and wellness.
  • Identify the potential benefits of developing multidepartmental, multijurisdictional, and multisectoral collaboration and response.
  • Conduct research to identify the potential waste, costs, and benefits associated with siloed service provision.
  • Identify and highlight existing best practices where agencies can make effective connections with services.
  • Conduct evaluations of the existing diversion and deflection programs that some agencies and jurisdictions are implementing.
  • Develop a promising practices guide that will help law enforcement and other key stakeholders conduct public outreach and improve community relations.
  • Fund local research efforts that engage and collaborate with law enforcement and community stakeholders.
  • Examine existing research or conduct new research to identify the top reasons why individuals do not engage in needed services.
  • Conduct research to identify the gaps, costs, risks, and benefits of various levels of behavioral health services.
  • Conduct research to identify the most important types of data and identify approaches and tools for collecting those data.
  • Evaluate existing approaches to addressing homelessness to assess the intersection of homelessness and substance use disorders.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.