A recent Miami Herald editorial criticized a proposal by the Miami Beach Commission to ban people from sleeping outdoors, which would make homeless encampments targets for police. As the editorial argued, we cannot arrest our way out of homelessness.
Its truehomelessness in itself should not be a crime. But this does not mean that law enforcement has no role in addressing the problem.
As the crisis of homelessness has grown, two schools of thought have developed. The first, as represented by Ron Book, chair of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, is that homelessness is a housing problem. Book argues that the city is not spending enough on affordable housing.
If we cannot arrest our way out of homelessness, California proves that neither can we spend our way out of it. Following the Housing First playbook, the Golden State spent nearly $10 billion on homelessness programs between 2018 and 2021, adding or maintaining 48,714 affordable-housing units and 17,000 new shelter beds. Yet the homeless population grew by 22,000.
The other school of thought is that homelessness often is a symptom of deeper problems that housing alone cannot solve. The chronically homelessroughly one-third of the homeless populationfrequently suffer from untreated substance abuse disorders. These are the souls we primarily find in encampments.
It would be wrong to simply arrest people for the non-crime of being homeless, but we should recognize that encampments pose serious public nuisances involving genuine crimes. Public defecation should be an arrestable offense under any circumstances, as should open-air drug consumption.
If the goal is to help people, though, we must do more than merely warehouse them. But does this mean that police should never arrest homeless people who violate laws? The faulty reasoning from opponents of such policies is that arrest necessarily means letting people wither away in prison.
With the right programs in place, law enforcement can play a crucial role in shepherding people into recovery. Many recovering addicts credit their arrest with the moment they began to turn their lives around. Tom Wolf, founder of the Recovery Education Coalition, is one such individual, going so far as to thank his arresting officer for saving his life.
A growing number of cities has begun implementing jail diversion programs, which facilitate partnerships between police, courts and rehabilitation centers. Diversion programs offer arrestees a choice between jail time or recovery. The key to their success, as opposed to failed compulsory rehabilitation experiments, is that they allow addicts to retain a sense of agency over their lives.
Perhaps the most successful diversion program can be found in a unique homeless initiative in San Antonio, Texas, known as Haven for Hope. Haven takes a holistic approach to combating homelessness, housing residents on a university-style campus complete with social services, training programs and healthy forms of recreation. Since it opened in 2010, San Antonios homeless population has fallen by a whopping 77%.
The partnership with San Antonio Police and the Bexar County courts has been indispensable to Havens success. The diversion program led to 3,323 fewer jail bookings in its first year in operation, but this was not the result of an arrest moratorium. Rather, officers and judges were glad to send arrestees to Haven, which eased the burden on the criminal justice system while providing genuine help to San Antonios homeless. Haven has since implemented jail-release and prison-inreach programs through which recovering addicts serve as Havens prison liaisons to recruit inmates who need treatment.
Punitive approaches to combating homelessness can never produce humane, long-term solutions. But under the right policies, law enforcement can help homeless addicts begin the road to recovery.