For today’s Daily COVID-19 Report, PERF spoke with police officials from three cities – Miami, Los Angeles, and Seattle – about how their homeless outreach programs have been impacted by the pandemic.

PERF has published several recent resources that address the police response to homelessness:

The Law Enforcement Response to Homelessness (2020) - This report, published by PERF and the RAND Corporation as part of the NIJ-funded Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative, summarizes a February 2020 workshop of practitioners and researchers who discussed the police role in responding to homelessness and ways to support and improve upon existing efforts. The publication identifies the problems and opportunities police face, and what’s needed to address those challenges.

The Police Response to Homelessness (2018) - This report, part of PERF’s Critical Issues in Policing Series, is based on a January 2018 PERF conference about police practices in responding to persons experiencing homelessness. The report highlights promising programs and includes 11 steps law enforcement agencies can take to improve their response to homelessness.

PERF also previously addressed this topic in the March 30th Daily COVID-19 Report.


Miami Assistant Chief Manuel Morales

Florida has been one of the COVID hot spots, particularly Miami-Dade County. We have seen quite a rise in numbers, not only among the general population but among the homeless population and our department personnel. Our department has been fortunate not to have any fatalities due to the virus, but we are always mindful of that risk.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we suspended operations involving our homeless population until we had a better understanding of what was happening and could review our operational protocols. Normally we are very active. We work very closely with the Homeless Trust, which is a county entity. We have our own homeless assistance program for the City of Miami that works hand-in-hand with the Trust.

We usually have officers do homeless outreach details once or twice a week in our various neighborhoods. We suspended that until we had all our protocols in place. Once we did, we ensured we had a higher level of preparation, robust communication with other city departments, and our civilian and sworn personnel were outfitted with proper PPE – masks, face shields, gloves, and sanitation tools to disinfect our vehicles and equipment.

We see a spike in our homeless population in the winter months, as we see people fleeing the bitter cold up north. We usually have around 1,500 to 1,600 homeless people countywide, and 700 to 800 of those are in the City of Miami. Those folks tend to be shelter-resistant and have been offered services multiple times. They tend to stay pretty clustered in specific locations, which makes it easier for us. But it presents a problem when you try to go into these neighborhoods to address problems.

We’ve partnered with the hospitality industry, including hotels with vacant space because of the sharp decline in tourism. Individuals who want shelter are able to get off the streets and have temporary housing, at least during the pandemic.

The Department of Health has discouraged any breaking up of homeless encampments. They see a higher rate of infection among the homeless population, so they want to be able track those infections and don’t want the population to be scattered.

We hand out masks to the public at large, including the homeless population. Anytime we conduct an outreach detail, we offer shelter and clean-up. As we make contact to offer services, we make sure people have PPE, including masks, face shields, and hand sanitizer. We’ve handed out close to 30,000 surgical masks.

When we initially stepped back our outreach operations, we saw a decrease in reported crime, because decreased contacts means decreased enforcement. We weren’t making arrests at the rate that we were pre-COVID. Fortunately, in that absence of enforcement, we have not noticed a sharp increase in the victimization of homeless individuals.


LAPD Commander Donald Graham

At the last point-in-time count in early 2020, there were an estimated 60,000 persons experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County, with approximately 40,000 of them in the City of Los Angeles and an estimated 32,000 completely unsheltered.

Early on, around May, we partnered with the Fire Department and the Department of Health to go out in the field with a multi-disciplinary group that included medical professionals, police, fire, and outreach workers to administer COVID tests in the field and provide medically-informed advice to the homeless population. We distributed shelter-in-place kits that included 14 disposable masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and a trash bag. That was designed to be enough for one person to shelter in place in their tent for two weeks. We would go back in two-week cycles to replenish supplies, check up on people, and offer connections to services.

Through that partnership, we were involved in over 30,000 contacts and administered 11,000 COVID tests to persons experiencing homelessness. We found a positivity rate of 2.4%, which was significantly lower than the average for the entire population. We think that may be because persons experiencing homelessness generally aren’t engaging with the general population. They stay tight within their groups, so there isn’t much of a flare-up until someone who is infected enters an encampment.

We continue to work with that partnership to distribute PPE and share information.  We have a unified homeless response center out of our emergency operations center, which is a multi-agency information clearinghouse that we use to keep our partners informed about what we’re seeing in the field. 

At this point last year, we had 39 homicides in which the victim was homeless. This year, we have 55, which is an increase of 41%. Most suspects in those 55 homicides are also homeless. We also see an increase in aggravated assaults.

The CDC issued guidelines stating that if you can’t bring homeless individuals indoors, breaking up tent encampments is not a desirable outcome, because tents provide droplet protection. In March of this year, our City Council and county public health department put a moratorium on all tent and camping enforcement in public areas.

That has led to a rise in the permanent encampment type of homelessness, and has caused a rise in tensions between people in these ever-enlarging encampments. We attribute the rise in crimes in which the suspect and victim are homeless to that, as well as the continued increase in L.A.’s homeless population.  L.A. saw a 12% increase in its homeless population from 2019 to 2020.

It’s more difficult to solve homicides involving homeless persons. You have a very reluctant population of witnesses. And it can be more difficult to find a motive and link a suspect to the crime when the suspect is also homeless.

Our relationship with social service providers here in Los Angeles is very tumultuous. Most folks who get involved in the social side of this tend to come from a particular worldview about law enforcement always making things worse. So they’re not very apt to share information or cooperate in investigations. Even when there’s a crime where both the suspect and victim are homeless, it’s very difficult to get information from the social service providers to help solve the case.

But on the occasions when a victim is a person experiencing homelessness who has been in an encampment for a long time and is well-liked, detectives find that within 48-72 hours they get flooded with tips and calls from others in the encampment, and they can button that case up rather quickly. But that’s maybe 1 in 10 cases.


Seattle Sergeant Trent Schroeder

Our City Council has defunded our Navigation Team, so we have been disbanded. The council doesn’t want law enforcement to be involved in outreach to individuals experiencing homelessness right now. That is all now done by third-party outreach organizations. During the day, there are street medicine teams and other outreach teams going around to encampments, but they don’t work the evening times, so there’s a gap there. And with the Navigation Team out of play, the amount of contact between individuals experiencing homelessness and someone who can get them the assistance they need has definitely dropped dramatically. I’m fearful for the long-term outcome of that.

Right now, all our shelters have cut down capacity, so we have a lack of bedspace to get people indoors. Our homeless population outside is growing. We’re in a shelter-in-place order citywide, so there are encampments and tents all over the city. People in those encampments tend to stick to themselves and not associate too much with the rest of the public.

Our homeless-on-homeless violent crimes have gone up. With every encampment, property crime in the area has gone up. As in other cities, narcotics activity increases around encampments. We’ve seen a lot of narcotics activity where people who aren’t homeless set up their shop in homeless camps. That’s been rising lately.

In March, when COVID started, our Navigation Team made a big effort to distribute sanitation kits, to try to get hand sanitizer, masks, soap, water, and toiletries to as many encampments as we could. That was one of our big efforts prior to being disbanded.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.