As debates rage on about how to fight homelessness in Santa Monica and throughout the region, first responders continue coming in contact with homeless people at alarming rates.
Some 40 percent of calls to the local police department and about 15 percent of fire department calls involve homeless people, officials have said.
OPCC executive director John Maceri, whose organization provides housing and other services to homeless people in the area, said the statistics are slightly misleading. He acknowledged that homeless people require substantial time on the part of first responders but added that many of the interactions stem from minor municipal violations or calls from concerned community members.
“People equate every call to the police department about a homeless person as involving a crime, and that’s not true,” he said. “When people have a question or concern, or they see someone who they think may be in distress, they don’t always know what to do. Oftentimes, they call the police.”
The Daily Press spoke with Maceri about homelessness, crime and efforts to address the issues locally. What follows is the second of two parts of the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity. To read the first part, click here.
Daily Press: Say an apartment resident find a homeless person sleeping on the property and calls police. What happens?
John Maceri: In those situations, technically that’s trespassing, but it’s not a violent crime. We’ve had situations where [the police department’s Homeless Liaison Program team] will contact our outreach team and say, “Someone is sleeping here, and they need assistance. Would you guys come over?” It’s clear the police are not going to arrest that person. That’s different than breaking and entering, where the police are going to have to remove someone.
It’s almost always someone sitting or lying down on private property where the person is just trying to get out of the way. They’re not necessarily bothering anyone and they’re not doing anything to get them arrested, so police just want to get them moved off the property. If someone was stealing property, breaking into a home or car or getting into an altercation, we don’t get involved in those situations. Those rise to the level of needing police involvement. If people are committing crimes, then law enforcement needs to be involved.
DP: Is that mainly how you distinguish between the various crimes committed by homeless people?
JM: We see homeless people who are sleeping on the beach; technically it’s a crime, but somebody’s just tired and wants to lay down and sleep. That’s different than somebody accosting someone. There are gradients of what constitutes criminal activity. We see homeless folks going about their business and trying to survive and encountering law enforcement for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes we have homeless people who are engaged in things they shouldn’t be doing. We’ve had occasions where we’ve had to call police for assistance for things like drug-dealing, assault or bike stealing. People who are homeless don’t get a pass. But there are also quality-of-life offenses, and somebody might get arrested for urinating in public, throwing a cigarette butt or jaywalking.
DP: Should police be doing something differently than what they do now?
JM: Every police department has to decide how they want to use their resources. They have to do what is in the best interest of public safety. Generally speaking, if homeless people are engaged in activities that really present an imminent threat to themselves or the community, they have to deal with that. If it’s a more benign situation, I think there are alternatives.
That’s where community resourcing can be very effective — for the homeless person involved, but also for how limited public resources are used. If someone gets arrested for sleeping on a park bench and they’re not doing anything other than that, I’m not sure that’s the best use of police resources.
First-responder resources are precious, limited and expensive. As a community, we need to think about how those resources are used.
DP: What is being done to break the cycle of crime among homeless offenders?
JM: A lot of people get cited for quality-of-life offenses: loitering, smoking in public, trespassing. These are not violent crimes, but they rack up tickets, and these citations go to warrant. As an alternative to incarceration, through Homeless Court, working closely with OPCC and other organizations like the District Attorney’s office and the judge, people who voluntarily agree to a care plan for themselves can have their record expunged and avoid jail time. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be very effective. We’re always looking for the opportunities for people to avoid the criminal justice system.