By Chief Robert Thomas

In and of itself, being homeless does not constitute an arrestable offense. Often, citizens will walk by someone living on the street and call the police to report it. Absent any criminal factors, we, the police, are powerless to intercede. We do take action when called.

Often, for a number of different reasons, people live on the streets. Throughout the years of police work, we have interviewed the homeless, and their reasons vary, but the majority fall into 1 of 3 categories: mental health issues, drug dependency, and/or financial ruin. Without a permanent residence, these folks will live in their vehicle, set up a tent in a camp or alone, or a quick shelter in public places, near parks, schools, businesses, and sometimes on private property.

As we encounter people living in these temporary shelters, we try to get help by inquiring about the root cause of their homelessness, and of course, we offer help. Our help starts by giving a ride to the homeless to a shelter or facility that handles mental health when they are a harm to themselves or others.

We cannot make them go to the hospital for mental health issues absent acts or threats of violence. Doing so would be tantamount to kidnapping. We do give rides to both mental health and drug abuse facilities if they ask or are willing to go when we ask. When they do not want to go willingly and are refusing any offers of help, we distribute a simple referral brochure to give them a direction to pursue if they change their mind (below).

I didn’t know until I became a police officer that most shelters will not take individuals who are intoxicated or high on drugs. It is too disruptive to those people trying to recover in the shelter. I also didn’t know that mental health and drug counselors (and most referral sites) are usually only open 8 hours a day. A few places are open longer but rarely 24 hours. Not to mention, they are usually staffed by either low-paid workers or volunteers. It is frustrating to try to give help with such limitations.

We are finding more and more these days that the number of people homeless is increasing, and they do not want our help, no matter what. They just want to live their lives “their way.” People like this can not be forced to live in a structure. San Francisco recently tried this and failed miserably, with the vast majority of pre-built structures going uninhabited.

It leaves us with the only option of arresting someone who might be violating state laws of Trespass, Disorderly Conduct, Larceny, or Burglary. We will enforce these laws and arrest the violator if the victim/owner of the property wants an arrest and is willing to cooperate with the paperwork. Most of the time, victims will tell us, “I just want them to leave and not come back.” Of course, we explain this to those homeless individuals and then try to find them the help they need.

In the end, we are still only able to offer help, but we can’t force our “desire to help” on someone. We have brochures we will hand out to the public if they want to distribute them to the homeless they encounter.

We are sympathetic and compassionate, but the police can only influence people to a certain degree. I am open to thoughts or suggestions on ways to combat the homelessness plague, to the point that I read as many articles as I can to see what is working in other jurisdictions. I’ve made calls to other agencies along the valley in both directions, but we are doing as much, if not more, than other agencies experiencing the same problems.