Crime & Justice

These police officers were assigned to help the homeless, but did they?

LAPD officers pass a homeless man at his encampment on a downtown L.A. sidewalk.
LAPD officers pass a homeless man at his encampment on a downtown L.A. sidewalk.

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The 38 officers assigned to the LAPD homeless outreach program contacted 12,300 homeless people during the first nine months of this year, according to a report delivered Tuesday to the police commission. It’s unclear, however, how many actually received help. 

"We have to revisit the numbers we’re reporting and what they mean," said Commander Dominic Choi, who recently began overseeing the department’s efforts to help the homeless. "We’re not caseworkers, so we can’t follow up."

The report said more than 700 people "accepted various forms of housing offered" and over 3,500 "accepted various forms of referral services."

The LAPD launched its Homeless Outreach Partnership Endeavor 18 months ago. The program's officers typically go to a homeless encampment a few days before city workers arrive to clean or remove the camp. They’ll warn people and ask if they want help. Another group of officers does similar work on L.A.'s Skid Row.

If someone wants help, officers send the person’s name, location and other identifying information to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority so it can arrange a caseworker visit. But the Authority’s casework is confidential so its impossible to say what impact the LAPD's outreach efforts are having.

"I think it was ambitious to say that LAPD and [the Homeless Services Authority] were going to be working hand in hand," Choi said. "They have contrary missions."

Social workers help people, while police officers enforce the law and homeless people often don’t trust them, said Jennifer Hark-Dietz of People Assisting The Homeless. ""They might be worried they’re going to be arrested or incarcerated."

The LAPD has a history of handing out citations to homeless people for jaywalking and other minor infractions, which carry fines that are nearly impossible for a homeless person to pay.

At the same time, officers’ presence at homeless encampments is "very helpful," said Hark-Dietz. "LAPD being there makes a big difference, especially at the bigger encampments."

Hark-Dietz said she’d like the department to work more closely with groups like hers so caseworkers could also arrive before a clean-up happens to offer help - and the persistent follow-up it often takes to deliver it.

"I’m trying to figure out what we need to keep and what we need to modify," Choi said.

The primary mission of the program remains protecting city workers and enforcing health and safety regulations, he said. But he dismissed the idea that the LAPD should stick solely to law enforcement when it comes to the growing homeless problem.

"We have to do something," said Choi.