Amid Calls to Defund the Police, Many Mayors Are Still Relying on Cops to Address Homelessness

The 2021 Menino Survey of Mayors shone a spotlight on what mayors say is holding them back from addressing the homelessness crisis, from lack of public support for new housing to funding needs and more.

A homeless camp surrounds the Bellingham, Washington, City Hall in December 2020. (Photo by Robert AshworthCC BY 2.0)

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How much control does your mayor have over the issue of homelessness? From the perspective of mayors, it turns out, the answer is “not much.” That was a top finding of a nationwide survey of mayors conducted by Boston University’s Initiative On Cities as well as the nonprofit Community Solutions.

For the survey—the eighth annual Menino Survey of Mayors but the first to include questions on homelessness—researchers spoke with 126 mayors in 39 states. Among their findings were that 73% of mayors believe that they are held accountable by their constituents for their response to the homeless crisis, but 81% do not believe they have a lot of control over the issue. The reasons for this, according to mayors surveyed, had to do with lack of funding and public opposition to new affordable housing.

The findings also revealed that many mayors lack dedicated homeless staff and lean on police departments for policy advice. mong those who have staff, some place them within their police departments. Over 60% percent of mayors said that limited funding was their biggest obstacle, while over 25% percent said that public opposition to shelters and new housing were their largest obstacle.

According to Jake Maguire, the co-director of Community Solutions’ Built For Zero program, the survey responses suggest that many cities’ approach to homelessness is in disarray.

“The way that we set up homeless response in this country is tremendously fragmented,” he says. “Multiple agencies own one little piece of the puzzle, but they don’t report to each other.”

The interviews were conducted largely over the phone between June and August 2021, and questions were also asked about the Covid-19 recovery and the racial wealth gap. Mayors were granted anonymity, though the report shared anonymized data on geographic spread and political affiliation.

The report paints a familiar portrait to anyone who has witnessed mayors struggle with the issue of homelessness: Many are under-resourced and, in the face of potential political backlash, choose to deal with visible homelessness through enforcement while sometimes attempting to sway influence over affordable housing production.

Criminalizing Homelessness

Perhaps the most revealing data in the report are answers on policing. The survey found that 78% of mayors say that police have some influence over their city’s homelessness policy. And 22% of mayors said they placed their homelessness staff within their police departments. The report seems to illustrate that mayors lean on policing in lieu of tools and resources to address homelessness through housing or services.

In fairness, the report found that cities were relying more on nonprofits and continuums of care, or coordinating agencies that deal with homelessness. But after those two entities, none ranked higher with mayors than police.

“What you see there is mayors defaulting to something they’re actually in charge of, which is the police force,” Maguire says. “Most mayors are not in charge of the production of affordable housing, they’re not in charge of the federal housing voucher supply that comes down to their community.”

The potential consequences of this are the criminalization of homelessness, high profile clearings of homeless encampments and violent encounters with people in the midst of a mental health crisis. “You’re using the least equipped force in your community to respond to extremely complex health and social challenges that people experience,” Maguire says.

When asked by Next City, advocates for people experiencing homelessness expressed concern about this aspect of the report. “Criminalization and policing are not the answers to homelessness; housing is,” says Jacqueline Simone, policy director for NYC’s Coalition For The Homeless. Simone says the federal government could provide mayors with more tools by providing enough Section 8 vouchers for everyone in the country experiencing homelessness. The Biden administration planned to expand vouchers to 300,000 more households, but those plans are tied up in the social spending portion of the Build Back Better Act.

“In the interim, cities must resist the tendencies to criminalize homelessness and utilize police to push people from one place to another,” Simone says.

Others surmised that reliance on police is the result of community pushback. “Having police as influential as the mayors ranked them could be a chicken-and-egg scenario,” says Mary Rychlik Stahlke, director of engagement at Texas Balance of State Continuum of Care. “Community members call the police to complain about people visibly experiencing homelessness then the police get involved, then the police talk with city government leaders.”

“How might the situation look different if communities had enough emergency housing, supportive services, affordable housing, rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing for the people who need those?” Stahlke asked.

It is hard not to draw a connection between the overwhelming sense that mayors feel they are politically on the hook for the homeless crisis in their cities, that few feel empowered to provide adequate housing or services, and that many lean on police nearly as much as they do nonprofits or continuums of care. Last March, LAPD cleared a homeless encampment in Echo Park home to hundreds of residents while also arresting journalists and activists. A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Garcetti called the sweep “a successful housing operation unprecedented in scale.” In September, Garcetti signed an ordinance banning people from sitting, lying or sleeping in public.

In San Francisco, encampment sweeps coordinated by the city’s Healthy Streets Operating Center were frequently clearing people from public areas even when there were not adequate shelter beds for them to turn to in violation of state law, according to a report from the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.

One West Coast mayor is quoted in the survey as saying, “We kind of eyeball the thing. If there’s a homeless encampment this week, and it’s gone next week, we consider that a success.”

Results from last year’s report suggest that once these responsibilities have been assigned to the police, mayors are reluctant to put them in the hands of other agencies, a major ask of last year’s racial justice protests. According to the report, “only 33% of mayors supported reallocating some or many responsibilities from the police to social service agencies.” Last year’s report also cited mayors’ lack of control over other city services, and quotes one mayor as saying, “It would be great to put money towards mental health, addiction recovery, etc. but we don’t run those programs.”

The Data Gap

In addition to inadequate resources, the survey found that many mayors did not have a clear metric for reducing homelessness and many were not collecting appropriate data. The federal government requires an annual snapshot of the city’s homeless population, called a “point in time” count, many of which are occurring right now, as they’re mandated to occur in the last two weeks of January. But this responsibility is assigned to “continuums of care” homeless agencies frequently located at the county level. This brings cities into conflict with counties when counts aren’t prioritized.

“We waited for the county to do their job, but they never did, so we had to get direct funding from the state and do it ourselves. We didn’t want the job from the county,” one mayor told researchers.

According to Built For Zero’s Maguire, the point in time count is inadequate for most mayors as the data is not specific enough and because there is a long delay before HUD relays the results to cities. “It doesn’t give you a lot of usable information,” he says. “You send those tallies off to the federal government, then 11 months later you get an estimate from HUD.”

Only 40% of mayors defined success in terms of reducing homelessness, a number that may seem surprising but is in line with how the issue is treated at the city level. Maguire says the lack of an overall strategy for reducing homelessness is endemic. “Lots of people are responsible for some element of homelessness, but no one is really in charge,” he says. “The way that we set up homeless response in this country is tremendously fragmented, multiple agencies own one little piece of the puzzle, they don’t report to each other.”

One mayor’s definition of success is perhaps an apt description of how the issue is treated at the city level. He told researchers the city’s definition of success is “moving them elsewhere. Not pretty, but that’s what it is.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.

Tags: homelessnesspovertymayorspolicepolice reform

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