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After seven years of homelessness, Theo Henderson knows to steer clear of white dog-walkers, “crazy parents,” and overinvolved business owners. They’re the people most likely to call the police on a Black man for just sitting or sleeping outside, he said.
He also knows that’s not always enough to avoid interacting with the Los Angeles Police Department. People are suspicious of Henderson. And that has led to multiple traumatic encounters with officers who drew their weapons on him.
“I’m constantly wasting time having to worry any time I see police officers drive by, or they stop at the park and see me,” said Henderson, a 46-year-old who lives in Los Angeles and hosts a podcast called “We the Unhoused.”
“I’m always beset by the worry that this was done by some NIMBY,” he said. “I have to sit here and be non-threatening, and pray I don’t get shot to death.”
But the constant, nagging threat of police responding to complaints about homelessness may soon change — at least a little.
For years, activists have argued that tasking police with regulating homelessness ends in arrests, unpayable fines, and brutality among a deeply impoverished population that’s disproportionately Black. Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and widespread protests against police brutality, they’re closer than ever to convincing cities that officers should have less of a role in responding to people who are homeless, mentally ill, or both.
“Just so we’re abso-fucking-lutely clear, we do not want any of these services ... to run through the LAPD.”
Officials in San Francisco and Albuquerque, for example, have recently said they’ll work to block cops from responding to nonviolent calls about homeless people, so unarmed professionals can handle them instead. Those reforms could also come to Los Angeles, home to one of the nation’s largest unhoused populations at 41,000 people. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion instructing police, mental health, and homeless services officials to come up with a new model that would redirect calls about certain nonviolent issues to outreach workers and medical providers.
The cities’ plans mirror a program that’s been carried out in Eugene, Oregon, for more than 30 years. There, medics and crisis workers respond to 911 calls about people in distress via Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS — which is run out of the White Bird Clinic, a health center, rather than the local police department. The program is now working closely with about six other cities that want to launch similar initiatives, according to CAHOOTS’ operations coordinator, Tim Black.
The Los Angeles City Council has also listened to advocates’ calls to cut police budgets and divert that funding toward public safety alternatives, like unarmed crisis response teams and restorative justice programs.
“There’s never been anything this expansive offered by the LAPD or the City of Los Angeles — of course not — because there’s never been a movement like we’re seeing: a global movement that says ‘Black lives matter’ and ‘Defund the police,’” said Pete White, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which advocates for people living in Skid Row. “Hell no, they’ve never done it. But they’ve never had to respond to this.”
A city council committee recently agreed to trim $150 million from the LAPD’s coffers. That’s not nearly as much as advocates had hoped for, but it’s shocking nonetheless for a city that’s prone to spend big on cops. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has said he wants to reinvest that cash into social services, housing, and more.
“Not every call our city leaders have asked us to respond to should be a police response. We’ve been saying that for years,” Dustin DeRollo, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said in a statement. “We are willing to work with stakeholders to determine how, or if, we respond to non-criminal and non-emergency calls so we can free up time to respond quickly to 911 calls, address violent crime and property crime, and expand our community policing efforts.”
Arrests, brutality, and fines
As unsheltered homelessness has risen on the West Coast, so has cities’ reliance on police departments to assuage aggrieved neighbors, disable tent encampments, and enforce a litany of anti-homeless laws.
Although officers also make referrals to homeless and mental health services, advocates and police alike have long argued it’s not their place. Los Angeles City Council members acknowledged in their recent motion that the city had “gone from asking the police to be part of the solution, to being the only solution for problems they should not be called on to solve in the first place.”
But cops wound up with that responsibility, in part, because they were the ones with the budget and staff necessary to respond to homeless and mental health concerns at all hours of the day, every day of the year. Social services agencies, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as robust and are a frequent target of budget cuts on the local, state, and federal level.
In New York City, for example, Mayor Bill de Blasio was planning deep cuts to social services earlier this year, while largely sparing the NYPD’s budget. The city reversed course after Floyd’s death, amid protester demands to defund the police.
“You ask them to fund housing and social services and you get questions about, ‘Do we need all of this?’” said Eric Tars, the legal director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “The police always get the budgets that they ask for, because it’s for ‘public safety.’”
After years of that imbalance, officials are now reckoning with the relationships they’ve forged between cops, homeless people, and the agencies intended to serve them. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is currently being petitioned by one of its employees to stop working with police, for example. The employee wrote in her petition that connecting homeless people to care should be “free from the harm of law enforcement.”
During the third quarter of 2019, about one-third of the LAPD’s use-of-force incidents involved a homeless person, according to the Los Angeles Times. And the city’s been sued repeatedly for its officers’ treatment of people living on the streets. One homeless man filed a complaint in May after an LAPD officer repeatedly punched him while responding to a person who called and complained that he was trespassing.
Being arrested or ticketed can also plunge a homeless person even deeper into poverty, advocates say. Yet police in some cities continue to dole out “quality of life” citations with regularity. In September 2019, for example, homeless people sued Ocala, Florida, alleging that the city had burdened them with thousands of dollars in court fines and fees after they were arrested for resting or sleeping in public. And homeless people in LA have received citations for illegally pushing shopping carts, drinking in public, and sleeping or blocking the sidewalk, according to an LAPD report released earlier this year.
“You’ll talk to some of our folks with lived experience and some of the people that we’ve worked with over the years, and they would say that a police officer saved their lives, and others would say the complete opposite,” said Heidi Marston, the executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, adding that the agency will continue to collaborate with police when necessary. “What I’ve said all along is that so long as we have people who are living outdoors, there’s inevitably going to be some sort of involvement between law enforcement and those individuals.”
Los Angeles City Councilmember Herb Wesson, who chairs the city’s police reform committee, has witnessed that involvement firsthand. His eldest son has struggled with homelessness, substance use, and mental health issues on and off for much of his life.
Wesson’s seen a clear difference in how his son interacts with trained social workers versus police officers, he said. He was among the councilmembers who pressed to remove cops from certain 911 calls, recognizing that his city perhaps wasn’t as creative “as we could’ve been” while punting some problems to police.
“We need to have a serious conversation about crisis response teams that go out and deal with individuals that are on the street, that are suffering from substance abuse problems, that are suffering from mental health problems,” said Wesson, who served as the city council’s first Black president before stepping down last year to focus on his campaign for a spot with the LA County Board of Supervisors. “There is a better way to assist them, and this is really our approach to try and discover that better way.”
But the LAPD will still play a role in shaping what that assistance looks like going forward — and their input doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“Just so we’re abso-fucking-lutely clear, we do not want any of these services — these independent services for health care, et cetera — to run through the LAPD, or an umbrella service of the LAPD,” said one advocate during the city council's police reform committee hearing last Wednesday.
For Henderson, blocking cops from responding to some calls about homelessness would, at the very least, “make my life a little bit more humane,” he said. But he considers the change only one step in a greater movement to tamp down on problems in policing.
Being constantly monitored by cops — and constantly hounded by wealthier neighbors — gets in the way of Henderson’s safety and well-being. It’s disruptive to have to always move from place to place or hide because he’s worried people will complain, and that the police will show up in turn.
“I’m a human being,” he said. “I’m not a top wanted criminal.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more recent figures regarding how much money the Los Angeles City Council is considering cutting from the police department's budget.
Cover: In this March 1, 2016 file photo, San Francisco police officers wait while homeless people collect their belongings in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)