Policing the homeless problem: Cities spent $8.6 million on police to deal with homeless shelter impacts
Editor’s note: The following story was funded by The Economic Hardship Reporting Project and reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with the Salt Lake City Weekly, KUER, the Standard-Examiner and The Spectrum News.
A torrential downpour pelted Ogden’s downtown on a recent January afternoon. Few people are outside except to make a quick dash from a car into a home or business. Two men, however, have hunkered down in a public park and talked with reporters while the 40-degree rain pounded the metal pavilion roof overhead.
Darrell is huddled in multiple layers of clothes and many trash bags. Bags of bread and food are getting soaked while his friend Guadalupe keeps busy sweeping rainwater away from their food and belongings with a broom handle modified with a squeegee taped to the end.
“Can’t win at this,” he said ruefully as he continued pushing water away.
Darrell said he’s not staying in the shelter because he’d been banned there. Guadalupe said he once had all his stuff stolen from the shelter, so he takes his chances outside where he feels safer, even in ugly weather. Camping outdoors, they use hand sanitizer to start small, smokeless fires to warm up.
“It’s just enough to keep your hands alive,” Darrell said.
When asked how he feels about the fact that Ogden received $1.7 million from a state fund to deal with homeless problems and spent most of it on hiring new police officers, Darrell scoffed. Reclining in his makeshift garbage bag tent in a puddle of water, Darrell could handily recite recent Supreme Court cases like Martin v. City of Boise that prohibits cities from punishing the homeless for camping if there aren’t other alternatives like shelter beds available. Still, he said police find ways to harass him.
He gets more citations than help from the police, and more questions than answers, he said.
“They stop and ask me my name every day, and I tell them, ‘It was the same name as yesterday,'” he said. Darrell considers protecting the rights of the homeless as “the next civil rights fight that needs to be launched.”
Guadalupe is more circumspect. He said police that come by at least offer referrals for resources and, occasionally, water and granola bars. But besides that, they can’t offer much, he said.
“All they do is send us down to the Lantern House,” he said, referring to Ogden’s largest shelter.
In 2022 the Utah Legislature more than doubled the funds in its Homeless Shelter Cities Mitigation Fund. The account distributes grants to cities with homeless shelters and resource centers to help them deal with the impacts on their communities. The fund allows cities to spend the money either on police or on social services and other expenses to address the root causes of homelessness.
Since more than $10 million was doled out in the summer of 2022, eight cities across the state, from Logan to St. George, have overwhelmingly spent the grant funding on police. Over $8.6 million, or 91% of the funds, went to public safety expenditures. Another 5%, or just under half a million dollars, went to social services and another 4%, just under $400,000, went to support for communities and neighborhoods.
While the fund was geared to helping cities deal with negative impacts of shelters, critics say solely trying to police the problem is a mistake, even with a fund that includes public safety, along with social services and other programs.
Bill Tibbitts, of The Crossroads Urban Center, an advocacy organization for low-income Utahns, said he understands the need and that crime does unfortunately linger around homeless shelters. Still, he said spending on police amounts to a costly treatment for a symptom of homelessness that does nothing to address the underlying problem.
“I think it’s a sign the system is failing if you need more funds for first responders rather than services,” Tibbitts said.
The thick blue line
Cities lobbied the Legislature for the fund to help cover the costs of dispatching police and paramedics to respond to homeless calls, Tibbitts said. So, it does make sense that public safety is the largest line item of spending from the cities.
“If you find someone passed out in the snow or in the extreme heat, then it’s exactly first responders you want there,” he said
But attacking the root problem requires more.
“It takes more creativity to come up with something that reduces the need for police to engage with people experiencing homelessness,” Tibbits said.
South Salt Lake City hired a homeless strategies director and a homeless strategies coordinator and continued funding 12 full-time firefighters/EMTs and 11 full-time law enforcement employees.
Midvale used the funds to continue paying for six full-time shelter resource officers, three full-time patrol officers and set aside $630,000 for contract fees to the Unified Police Department.
Salt Lake City used its $2.75 million grant to hire its “Rapid Response Team” of two outreach staffers to meet with the homeless as well as two business and community liaisons through Volunteers of America and two housing case managers, also through the VOA. But the city spent 83% of its grant funding to not only hire 12 new police officers “dedicated to homeless response” but also to buy new uniforms and equipment for the officers including ballistic vests, body cameras, duty weapons and even vehicles.
Ogden’s $1.7 million from the state fund went to hiring four new full-time law enforcement officers, three emergency medical services providers and continuing to fund two homeless service advocates.
That brings the city’s numbers up to 12 officers and nine EMTs focused on homeless response.
Lt. William Farr with the Ogden Police Department said the city has taken up a balanced approach in which police presence is a key ingredient but not the whole formula for dealing with a large homeless population.
“Like anywhere, it’s been a situation that has been increasing from year to year,” Farr said. “We have the largest homeless shelter in the state here in Ogden. So it definitely attracts a lot of individuals who don’t have shelter.”
In Ogden’s application for grant funding, the city noted it has already helped partner in the construction of the Lantern House, has donated space for Family Promise, a nonprofit that works to find housing for homeless families, and that the police and fire department also partner with Weber Human Services for mobile crisis outreach to the homeless. But the grant would help bolster its stretched-thin first responders.
“Two independent studies by consulting firms have indicated that officers in the Ogden Police Department handle more calls for service per officer than any other police department in the state of Utah,” the application states. It also identified more than $1.5 million in “costs directly related to increased homeless public safety needs surrounding our shelters and across the city in [Fiscal year 2020].”
Farr said the approach Ogden has taken involves teamwork between its homeless outreach staff and patrol officers.
“Basically, our homeless outreach coordinator trains them on best practices and how to deal with homeless individuals,” Farr said. “Our whole department receives training on things affecting the homeless, like mental health issues [and] how to deal with individuals that might be in need.”
The right tools
What does it mean to have police “dedicated to homeless response”?
It’s an issue of concern even for groups not normally focused on homelessness, such as the libertarian think tank The Libertas Institute. Amy Pomeroy, the institute’s criminal justice policy analyst, said in a statement that the funds are poorly spent on officers ill-equipped to deal with a complicated problem.
“We do police officers a disservice when we expect them to address homelessness, especially when we haven’t given them the tools to do so. Really, all an officer can do is arrest someone, drive them to a homeless shelter or tell them to move along. None of those options is a real solution. Funds would be better spent on addressing the persistent mental illness which is at the root of most chronic homelessness.”
Wendy Garvin is an advocate and founder of Unsheltered Utah, a nonprofit that serves the homeless population that refuses to use the shelters.
Garvin said Ogden is a major area where her organization serves and she praised the city as incredibly responsive with its police force, adding that officers coordinating with homeless outreach workers do a good job of linking up the unsheltered with available resources.
“I think Ogden has their s— together better than most places,” Garvin said. She also commended the city’s efforts to get people into shelters when the weather is unsafe.
The Ogden fire and police departments have recently established a “Code Blue” system that sends an automated alert to officers and first responders during severe weather that automatically opens up overflow shelter spaces and puts officers on notice to actively find the homeless and get them into the shelter system.
Garvin said it’s highly successful.
“During those cold days, we can drive around for hours and not find a single person in a tent,” Garvin said.
Even so, Garvin said that policing as a tool is often the wrong tool. While she believes the system works well in Ogden, she said officers there are also more likely to arrest the homeless for minor trespassing offenses. Ultimately, they tend to fall back on their training.
Social workers, housing case workers and others can find solutions for the unsheltered, but she said generally speaking “police have one tool and that’s a hammer — they send them to jail.”
Anna Davidson is the homeless outreach worker for the Ogden Police Department, and she says five years into the program of having outreach services embedded in a police department is showing results. She and another outreach worker provide training to officers and also go with officers to meet the homeless on the street. They do everything from helping individuals apply for housing and get to court dates, to helping people get social security cards and birth certificates.
The outreach team will invest a lot of time finding out every individual’s needs.
“Every person has a story,” Davidson said.
They once spent two years helping one person get a new Social Security card when the pandemic had closed down many government offices.
“She was just on the brink of wanting to give up when we finally got [the card], and things rolled forward quickly after that and we got her housed,” Davidson said. Her team will even stay with clients after they get housing to make sure the transition is a success.
“If you’re taking someone chronically homes and putting them in a home, you have to teach them to be people again, because they don’t have those skills. So we don’t just put them in an apartment and walk away,” Davidson said.
A statewide problem
Not every grant recipient has used the state funding for police.
Logan and Richfield just expanded services to domestic violence shelters. The New Horizons Crisis Center in Richfield was converted from an old nursing home into a 45-bed domestic violence shelter — the only one of its kind in the five rural counties surrounding it (Sevier, Piute, Millard, Sanpete and Wayne counties). In recent years, the shelter has had to accommodate more and more individuals experiencing homelessness.
New Horizons Director Debbie Mayo said one of her big concerns different from larger cities is getting gas money and buying bikes for homeless individuals so they can get to workplaces that are spread out far and wide among the small cities and towns.
While she deals with different issues, they sprout from the same causes. Mayo, like her urban counterparts, said the rise in homelessness has been a direct result of a lack of affordable housing and a jump in home prices.
“The limited housing in our area along with everywhere else is the same way,” Mayo said. “If you have a job that makes $14 an hour, it’s really hard to afford $1,000 a month in rent.”
While housing and behavioral health services are not always seen as readily available for smaller jurisdictions, Cedar City Police Chief Darin Adams said his city decided nevertheless to try to address root causes.
The city received $123,530 and directed that to rental deposits for individuals and households facing homelessness and emergency hotel and motel vouchers.
The city also wanted to address crime at and around the shelter but opted to leave police out of it. Instead, the grant paid to hire an employee of the Iron County Care and Share who would do both case management with clients and provide security as well.
“It just made sense that someone who could be stationed there doing security, doing outreach, would get to know every one of those individuals and then learn the others who are in the community and then be able to partner with us and our officers in trying to address this issue,” Adams said.
Davidson says having her team embedded in the Ogden Police Department has made tremendous progress bridging a gap from law enforcement and the homeless and is also helping to address root causes.
“I see a shift in the culture that’s happened on both sides. I love that we have people that can walk up and talk to an officer without being scared,” she said. “And to also have an officer come to me and say, ‘I found a person living in their car and this person really needs help. What can we do?’ Those actual conversations that are taking place are really lovely. I think that’s huge.”