Police Know Arrests Won’t Fix Homelessness. They Keep Making Them Anyway

In the Lents neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, residents gathered at a public forum last June to voice their concerns about the city’s growing population of homeless individuals. 

Over the last decade, rent grew twice as fast in Portland as the rest of the country, and the estimated number of people experiencing homelessness increased by nearly 30 per cent. The effects of those dynamics were on full display in Lents, one of the city’s most racially diverse areas and among the neighborhoods where home prices had been rising the fastest. 

Encampments had sprung up in parks and along bike and walking paths, and the tension between housed and unhoused residents simmered. Residents desperately wanted someone to address the litter, drug use and mental health crises they’d seen.

Months earlier, the residents had expressed their frustrations to a police commander. This time, their guest was the commissioner of Portland’s Housing Bureau.

Lents resident Martin Johnson complained about the trash left in yards and on streets. “We clean it up. They come back, we clean it up. They come back,” he said. Johnson noted that he and his wife both carry concealed weapons.

“And if it happens in my yard, there’s going to be a problem,” he said. “So if we don’t come up with a solution, you’re gonna have some deaths around here if people are going in people’s yards.”

A few in the crowd cheered, or murmured, “Amen.” 

“That’s the truth because we are frustrated, totally frustrated,” Johnson said.

Tents line a block in Portland’s Old Town (courtesy of Street Roots)

This is a tension that’s playing out across West Coast cities, as the combination of a mental health crisis and a decadelong real estate boom have created a new, especially vulnerable, especially visible generation of the unhoused. They’re “unsheltered,” meaning they live in cars, tents and makeshift shelters on the streets, rather than in shelters. Over the decade between 2009 and 2019, unsheltered homelessness continued to grow in California, Oregon and Washington, even as it declined in major cities outside the West Coast. And as the unsheltered increasingly live on streets in residential neighborhoods, their new neighbors have turned to one place for help in particular: the police. 

Most of the time, these emergency calls aren’t to report crimes. In Portland, for example, most police calls about homelessness from 2018 through 2020 were to report “suspicious” people or to ask an officer to check on someone’s welfare. Still, these interactions often end with an unhoused person’s arrest, and in Portland, half of arrests over a four-year period were of homeless people.

Arrest data from Portland and five other major West Coast cities show that the neighborhood outcry is fueling the vast criminalization of the homeless for largely nonviolent violations, according to an analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s a phenomenon that is generating unaffordable fines for unhoused individuals, sapping police resources and failing to address the core problems fueling homelessness. 

The analysis found:

The unhoused are disproportionately arrested. But these arrests are less likely to be for serious crimes. Although the homeless population in all the cities reviewed was less than 2 per cent of the overall population, they accounted for anywhere from 7 per cent of arrests in Oakland, California, to about half of all arrests in Portland. Unhoused people were less likely to be arrested for violent charges than housed people in every city Reveal examined.

The infractions they are accused of reflect the reality of living outside. Across the cities, unhoused people frequently were ticketed for things like loitering and drinking alcohol in public. In San Diego, police used one municipal code violation more than any other from 2013 to 2020: a law, intended to force residents to clear their trash cans from the street, that has been transformed to cite and even arrest unhoused people for taking up public space with their possessions.   

The unhoused often are arrested in connection with old offenses. Some of the most common offenses reflected particular challenges for someone living outside: failing to appear for court dates and keeping up with the terms of their probation or parole. In more than 40 per cent of the arrests of unhoused people in Portland, the only purpose was to execute a warrant, most often for failing to show up for a court hearing. Unhoused people and their advocates say it’s harder for them to get to court dates, and unaffordable penalties just perpetuate the cycle.

Reveal found the driving force behind arrests often isn’t proactive police enforcement, but residents reporting that a person is making them feel unsafe, refusing to leave the area, or leaving trash and other items behind. In Portland, Reveal’s analysis shows at least 60 per cent of calls that police dispatchers categorize as “homeless-related” aren’t explicitly about crimes.

Howard Belodoff, an attorney who advocates for unhoused people, says these clashes often highlight the need for a more sensitive response. 

“They need a place with somebody to guide them,” he said. “Social workers are much better than police officers at this.”

Some cities have begun programs to divert these calls to unarmed social workers. But the programs are still limited in scope and funding. Police are still largely the first line of response, and even many police officials say it shouldn’t be their job.

“We realized long ago that we’re not enforcing our way or arresting our way out of this problem,” said Sgt. Matt Jacobsen, who leads Portland’s Central Precinct Neighborhood Response team.

Many of the offenses his team responds to amount to “acts of survival” and a lack of privacy, like cutting toenails or washing hair on the sidewalk.

“It’s not going to work, nor is it the right thing,” he said of police enforcement.

A person sleeps on the streets in southeast Portland in 2020. Credit: Israel Bayer.

But the criminalization of homelessness has a long history in the United States. It was embedded in the first British laws ported over here – one law regulated the existence of “vagabonds, idle and suspected persons” in public space. It also played a seminal role in the broken windows theory, which said that visible signs of disorder brought more serious crime and has dominated American law enforcement for decades. 

“The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window,” the theory’s authors wrote when introducing it in The Atlantic magazine 40 years ago.

That has continued today. 

According to research by the National Homelessness Law Center, at least 100 US cities, including Portland, have laws against lying down or sleeping in public places. Although ordinances regulating living and sleeping outside are challenged in city halls, state legislatures and courts across the country, it’s still rare for cities to lean away from policing as the primary response.

This is at least in part because, without alternative options, residents will call their police departments to complain about homeless people – and the police are obligated to come.

How we did it

Reveal obtained arrest data through public records requests from Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and Oakland, California; and Seattle, Washington. Arrestees were categorized as unhoused only if their home address data contained a keyword like “transient,” “homeless” or “general delivery,” or if their address corresponded to an emergency shelter. For a complete list of addresses categorized as unhoused, visit Reveal’s GitHub. If the field was empty or said “unknown,” the arrestee housing status was categorized as “Address unknown or missing.” Otherwise, the arrestee housing status was categorized as “Housed.” Address information was absent from 37 per cent of San Diego arrests, 11 per cent of Seattle arrests and less than 4 per cent of Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland and Sacramento arrests. Additionally, because Seattle could provide data only from May 2019 through 2020, it is omitted from charts comparing arrests across cities.

How the Cycle Works

In December 2019, a business owner called Portland police to report people sleeping in the business’s parking lot, inside a truck filled with shopping carts and trash.

“I’m getting ready to open for business and it just looks super creepy,” the business owner said in the call. 

That same month, another man said he wasn’t sure if calling police was appropriate, but there was a “tweaker dude” outside his apartment complex asking everyone who came by if he could use their phone. 

“He’s at the front entrance aggressively asking, ‘Hey, I need to use your phone. Hey, I need to call Bryce. Hey, you know Bryce?’” the caller said. “And he’s got this pretty aggressive dog with him, too.”

The Portland police likely aren’t the best equipped to address the fundamental issues at play. Advocates who work with the unhoused say that in a lot of these cases, police are responding to an incident prompted by the lack of mental health care and basic necessities like food and shelter.

But when police do arrive, they often choose to pursue charges for minor legal violations or run an unhoused person’s name through a database in search of outstanding warrants from previous arrests. 

That helps explain why unhoused people are arrested at such a disproportionate rate. Individuals living on the street or in shelters often see their possessions confiscated or trashed during sweeps and rack up debt from fines and fees that follow arrests. A criminal record can also complicate getting a job, housing or access to social services.

Reveal’s data analysis shows the most common offenses include bench warrants, possession of controlled substances, disorderly conduct and theft. But many other frequent infractions are a direct result of laws and ordinances that target people living outside, such as illegal lodging or camping and trespassing.

In San Diego, arrests of unhoused people were more likely to entail only a charge of a municipal code violation – like violating posted park signs or drinking in prohibited areas – than arrests of housed people were.

In 2007, the city of San Diego settled a lawsuit brought by a group of unhoused people seeking to stop the city’s practice of citing them for illegal lodging. In the settlement, the city agreed to stop using the specific illegal lodging law, but that didn’t stop the targeting of the unhoused. Instead, the city found a new ordinance to use – this one, unauthorized encroachment, was created to make sure people put away their bins after trash pickup days. 

The number of citations for this violation increased by more than 500 per cent between 2010 and 2014 alone. 

Ashley Bailey, San Diego’s spokesperson for public safety and homelessness, said the city doesn’t enforce unauthorized encroachment, illegal lodging or overnight camping unless beds are available in shelters. She said officers proactively offer shelter to individuals – and check for warrants – during these interactions. 

“San Diego strives to balance compassion for those living on our streets with the need to address public health and safety issues,” she said. 

Unhoused people are also often arrested on bench warrants issued by a judge after they fail to show up to court for a past offense.

Tristia Bauman, senior attorney with the National Homelessness Law Center, said unhoused people can struggle to make it to court hearings.

“They may not have bus fare,” Bauman said. “They may be standing in a line to obtain meal service or obtain some other survival service and, as a result, not be able to appear in court.

And then there are other practical concerns around being able to keep track of days and times when people don’t have access to the same technology.” 

Chris VanHook has been arrested in Portland 14 times in the last five years. Some were for misdemeanor offenses, but two-thirds of the arrests were for bench warrants after he failed to appear in court or check in with his probation officer.

He said dealing with police is sometimes the most stressful part about living outside, because “they don’t know how to leave people alone.” He understands that police will respond if they see criminal activity, but it makes less sense to him when people are “just sitting here minding their own business.”

In July 2021, VanHook was in Lents Park for a weekly dinner served by a local advocacy group. Another attendee called 911 to report that VanHook had assaulted him with bear mace. A reporter was near both men at the time, and no one saw an attack. Responding officers didn’t charge VanHook. But they still ran his name through a warrant database and got a hit.

He was arrested and spent four nights in jail for failing to check in with his probation officer. That charge was dropped and his probation was terminated. But he still had one other warrant, for a 2017 charge of possessing methamphetamine. The case spurred other bench warrants after he missed court dates again. He faces arrest whenever he next interacts with a police officer, even though his original drug offense has since been decriminalized.

How to Break the Cycle

Some cities are developing alternatives. In 1989, Eugene, Oregon, launched what has become the model for alternatives to policing unhoused people – CAHOOTS, which stands for “Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets.” The program sends an EMT and a mental health counselor instead of police and began responding 24 hours a day in 2017. In 2019, CAHOOTS  responded to 20 per cent of 911 calls in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, saving the cities an estimated $15 million.

Portland launched a pilot called Portland Street Response, based on CAHOOTS, in the Lents neighborhood in early 2021. JoAnn Hardesty, the city commissioner who championed the program and oversees Portland Fire & Rescue, said Reveal’s data findings were “concerning” because they show so many resources are spent on nonviolent calls for unhoused people “when Portland is experiencing record levels of gun and traffic violence.”

“Part of what compelled me to create Portland Street Response was the data showing that clearly our response to those experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis, as well as those experiencing houselessness, was not effective,” she said in an emailed statement.

The pilot program started with a $1.08 million budget and limited personnel and hours. The program reduced police response to nonemergency welfare checks and dispatches coded as “unwanted” or “suspicious” persons – the types that represent the majority of homeless-related calls that police respond to – by 27 per cent in its first year, according to new research from Portland State University. 

Researchers also estimated that if the program had been operating 24 hours a day and citywide, it would have responded to about half of the average of 30,000 homeless-related calls for service each year. The City Council voted unanimously this year to expand the program citywide and to approve a budget of $11.5 million across two years. The funding comes from a combination of existing general funds, recreational cannabis tax revenue and revenues from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act.

As of fall 2021, 20 states had been awarded federal grants to launch programs to divert calls about mental health or substance use crises to teams of behavioral health specialists instead of law enforcement.

Los Angeles is using $1.5 million of those funds to expand a pilot that diverts nonviolent 911 calls about homeless people to unarmed teams of outreach workers and mental health clinicians.

Oakland recently launched an 18-month pilot that more closely resembles CAHOOTS, dispatching teams made up of an EMT and a trained community member to 911 calls in particular neighborhoods. The program explicitly aims to address the needs of residents who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. Police in each city Reveal reviewed disproportionately arrested Black people and were more likely to arrest unhoused people in every city except Los Angeles.

Sacramento fully funded a Department of Community Response in 2021 that dispatches social workers and outreach specialists to calls related to homelessness, mental health and substance use disorders. Seattle’s program responds citywide, but for limited hours, five days a week. San Diego recently has expanded its crisis response team countywide. 

Tremaine Clayton, a firefighter and paramedic who served last year as a staff member for Portland Street Response, says he thinks the programs have the capacity to change the way residents view someone in crisis – typically coded as “unwanted person” calls. 

“To say a person’s ‘unwanted’ is already pretty inhumane,” Clayton said. But callers to 911 have begun to ask for a response from Portland Street Response specifically, he said. “They’re acknowledging the person as a person struggling and knowing there’s a resource that could be connected to them.”

But frustration has long been the dominant emotion in conversations about homelessness at Portland’s Lents neighborhood community meetings.

During the police precinct commander’s visit in January 2021, attendees described feeling like prisoners in their own home. They said they couldn’t let children outside without fear of stepping on drug needles discarded by unhoused people.

Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct Commander Erica Hurley told residents she understood, but there’s only so much the police department can do to stop minor offenses or the cycle of criminalization. 

“So I write you a ticket for a hundred dollars, and you crumple it up and put it on my front lawn, because you live out in front of my house, and then you don’t show up and pay your fine,” Hurley said. “And I’m going to write you another one, and you’re going to drop that one, too.

“What am I going to do about that? There’s no teeth in that.”

Hurley said the police’s part won’t work until there’s more help on the social services side to help people with drug addiction and other issues. 

“Those are resources that are incredibly needed in the city of Portland,” she said.

This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to their weekly newsletter at revealnews.org/newsletter. Read more at www.revealnews.org.

Note to editors: Please consult Reveal’s republication guide if you use this story.

Courtesy of Reveal / International Network of Street Papers