Communities often use a collaborative approach to compassionately respond to their homeless populations. This can comprise local and regional government agencies, non-profit organizations, and faith-based institutions. While some programs exist, sometimes they are not as effective as possible because homeless individuals find it difficult to navigate the processes and requirements. The city of Long Beach launched the Quality of Life Detail to address this gap.

When residents and visitors have a concern with homeless issues, such as trespassing, panhandling, camping, littering, and nuisance activity, they call the police department for help. The Long Beach Police Department in 2008 experienced a high number of community complaints about homeless people in the downtown area, including Lincoln Park (adjacent to the Civic Center) and the Entertainment District. Police officers found that normal law enforcement measures were not an effective, long-term solution and that problems would eventually recur.

The Long Beach Police Department in response implemented a specialized team of police officers, known as the Quality of Life Detail to help people transition from homelessness to greater well-being and security. As first responders, the Quality of Life Detail officers strive to develop a trusting relationship and connect with homeless individuals, breaking down intimidating barriers and providing a caring and empathetic service.

The program follows the practices of community policing, based on the broken windows model of policing introduced in 1982 by UCLA professor James Q. Wilson and his collaborator George Kelling. Community policing promotes partnerships between the community, city departments and other organizations to solve neighborhood problems and improve the quality of life.

Most homeless individuals find it difficult to break the cycle of living on the street and many have mental health issues that prevent them from seeking assistance.

Involving the Quality of Life Detail police officers in the effort to assist the homeless makes sense for many reasons:

  • As first responders to receive complaints from the community or reports of incidents, police officers are in contact with homeless individuals on a regular basis and know most of these individuals; and
  • Many homeless individuals suffer from mental illness, and some can threaten the safety of homeless services workers, particularly when homeless encampments are being cleared or when there is a major outreach effort.

The assigned police officers can act as mentors, providing guidance and support to homeless individuals, while also hoping to reduce bothersome activity and negative community impact. Developing a specialized unit to focus on the needs and issues of the homeless population made sense, as the average police officer assigned to patrol wouldn’t have the time, or expertise to provide such services.

When the Quality of Life Detail first began, assigned officers had to learn about all of the resources available within the city and region. Today, the officers partner with the Long Beach Health Department’s Homeless Services Division, which is responsible for coordinating homeless services and addressing the impacts of homelessness citywide. The Homeless Services Division staff educate the assigned officers about various grant-funded programs and the operations of the Long Beach Multi-Service Center (MSC), which provides outreach, intake assessments, case management and housing placement services, and conducts a biennial homeless count.

Officers also work closely with the Mental Health Association Village, another local organization devoted to homeless advocacy, and the Police Department’s Mental Evaluation Team on a regular basis for mental health assistance and guidance, as well as various detective details when homeless persons may have been victimized or accused of committing crimes.

In February 2013, the Quality of Life Detail officers worked with MSC to help two homeless men obtain the documents needed to apply for different services and programs. Some of the programs included social security income and entering into a program called Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program. The men temporarily stayed at the Long Beach Rescue Mission while the officers worked to qualify them for an apartment in downtown Long Beach and obtain donated furniture.

The heart of community policing requires patience, understanding, willingness, and trust between the community and city departments to improve quality of life. The police officers assigned to the Quality of Life Detail have the ability to merge several critical components — the education provided to them by the Homeless Services Division, recognition of the services provided by the MSC, and the trust they have gained from the community — to successfully address a critical community challenge. Complaints from the public can be reduced because assigned officers are dedicated to focusing their efforts on the locations frequented by the homeless individuals, which relieves patrol officers from handling ongoing complaints and therefore redirecting their efforts to proactive patrols and calls for service.

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Originally posted at the League of CA Cities.