Alternatives to Criminalization

As described in part one of this series, unsheltered homelessness presents a unique aspect of danger: the criminalization of homelessness puts those living outdoors at constant risk of potentially dangerous interactions with police. Shifting the response to unsheltered homelessness from a carceral one to a community-based one means protecting the people we serve. Seizing upon the current wave of renewed national interest in decarceral forms of justice, the field can move quickly to enact progress for unsheltered people. Some communities, municipalities, and activist organizations in the U.S. have already begun taking steps to decriminalize homelessness, replacing some carceral tactics with housing and support service.


Service providers in Connecticut are working together with prosecutors to secure guarantees that they will not prosecute chronically or unsheltered homeless people for minor offenses. This reduces the likelihood that police officers and other system officials will attempt to arrest, harass, or institutionalize unsheltered people, and may reduce interactions between police and people experiencing homelessness altogether. This would decrease the likelihood of both police brutality and permanent arrest records which may further burden people later on.

Connecticut is also introducing a public education campaign encouraging citizens to contact 211 instead of 911 for non-emergency situations. This includes people experiencing homelessness and people experiencing mental health crises, which will result in trained resource personnel responding instead of police. 911 dispatch staff are also being trained in identifying emergency vs. non-emergency or mental health situations. These changes should have the result of decreasing overall interactions between police and people experiencing homelessness.

Portland, OR

In 2019, the Portland Police Bureau hired its first “homeless community liaison”, Stephanie Herro. The position is a law enforcement role tasked with serving as primary contact between local homeless service providers, social service agencies, and the police, and with developing a strategic response plan for responding to Portland’s growing unsheltered population, including collaborating with the Bureau’s Training Division to ensure ground officers are properly trained in providing services to unsheltered people.

Portland PB also houses the city’s Service Coordination Team, which administers “housing, treatment, and robust services to address the underlying root causes of police contact and to help break the entrenched cycle of addiction and criminality.” This unit is for qualifying repeat system users, not exclusively people experiencing homelessness, but many users do suffer chronic homelessness.

Finally, the Bureau’s Behavioral Health Response Teams (BHRT) “pair(s) a patrol officer and a qualified mental health professional” from a local service provider to respond appropriately to mental health crises, reduce the risk of force in police interactions, administer appropriate community resources and services to those in need, and ultimately reduce to interactions between police and people with mental illnesses. Referrals to the BHRT cars are made through patrol officers. A 2018 study of the Service Coordination Team (SCT) indicates that those who completed the SCT program saw an 88.5 percent reduction in arrests and those who began but did not complete the program saw a 27.5 percent reduction in arrests. 46 percent of participants had a zero arrest rate within twelve months of program completion.

New York City

The Corporation for Supportive Housing’s (CSH) FUSE initiative identifies frequent users of public systems, including hospitals, jails or prisons, and shelters, and provides them with supportive housing, significantly reducing returns. Two years after this program was carried out in New York City with a pilot cohort of 200 members, 86% of participants were in permanent housing. Shelter use among users also declined dramatically, with a 15-day shelter average over two years compared to 162 days over two years for non-participants. Psychiatric hospitalization was reduced by half. Over the 24 months after housing placement, FUSE participants averaged 29 jail days vs. 48 jail days for the matched comparison group. Each participant generated $15,000 in public savings ($20k vs $35k).


Recent legislative ventures also suggest a growing national interest in an innovative, decarceral approach to homelessness and policing. For example, Oakland’s city council recently unanimously approved a plan fund community-based alternatives to policing; Denver has successfully begun diverting police funding and replacing officers with response teams of mental health care experts; Minneapolis has reallocated millions of dollars to fund alternatives to policing; Austin has slashed its police budget by nearly half; and more than a dozen other cities across the country have made tangible steps toward reigning in their respective police departments, and increasing and improving the available community-based responses to low-level offenses. For people experiencing homelessness, this trend could make an incomprehensible difference in quality of life.

A Shifting Vision

Increasingly, and even more rapidly over the last year, public opinion is shifting away from militarization and carceral forms of justice as a norm, or even an acceptable practice. The homelessness system is in a position to capitalize on this trend, by promoting change at the national level, and helping impact it at the local level. Advocating for the diversion of funds away from bloated police budgets and toward meaningful community responses; repealing and outlawing local ordinances criminalizing quality of life or life-sustaining activities in public spaces; implementing collaborative, cohesive strategies and systems preventing the need for police intervention; and investing in meeting the urgent needs the needs of unhoused people are critical strategies for moving toward an end to homelessness. They also could be saving the lives of the people we serve.