Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tent city teardowns, family reunifications, and jobs

Homelessness during the 1930s Depression - Toronto's Yonge Street Mission
Photo Wiki Creative Commons

CPTED tells us that one way to enhance safety is to improve the maintenance and image of a place. We rarely hear how to do that. Is there a specific way that works better than others? One might think image and maintenance is a simple matter. Perhaps that's true in clean-ups for short-term gain, but it is less so if you want long-term sustainability.

This week I saw a clean-up and enforcement project that did it differently. As we teach during SafeGrowth classes, it demonstrates the importance of a rigorous collaborative process. Yesterday that project won the 2010 award for excellence in problem-solving at the International Problem-Oriented Policing Conference in Dallas. It is the Colorado Springs Police Department Homelessness Outreach program.

A year ago I described that one fallout of the Great Recession was the exploding number of homeless in squatter settlements like Tent Cities. I described an interesting innovation in Portland called Liberty Village.

Homeless tent prior to cleanup in Colorado Springs

Now the Colorado Springs Police Department report that they have begun to come to terms with it.

Like many cities, hundreds of homeless people were squatting in unsafe and unsanitary conditions in Colorado Springs. Life in makeshift tents (or in nothing at all) is a miserable experience; there are no provisions, sewage, water, nor protection from the elements. Not to mention the danger of crime.

Police tried clean-ups, arrests, and removal of abandoned property. When they were criticized for civil rights violations, they stopped. Then the sanitation problem worsened with piles of litter, garbage, and human waste. At that point, over 500 people were living in a homeless tent city.

The police formed a special team to apply problem-oriented policing. The key, they say, was collaborating with numerous groups. They spoke to a hundred homeless people to discover their needs.


They examined programs across the country and researched new laws. They analyzed and mapped the scope of their problem and found a majority of related calls for police service clustered around the homeless camps. In other research conducted on local homeless people, they discovered that 21% had severe mental illnesses and another 23% suffered substance abuse.

Their homework paid off. When clean-ups took place, they happened in the context of a much more rigorous collaborative process. What did they do?

  • They created referral programs to mental health agencies, alcohol treatment programs, shelters, and jobs programs.
  • They connected homeless people with families and obtained funding to reunite them.
  • They worked with civil rights groups to draft an ordinance prohibiting camping on public property when social strategies failed.
  • They met weekly with people who are homeless, service providers, civil rights leaders, and homeless advocates.

In their report, they say the team has worked with "nine shelter agencies, 11 food providers, 6 mental health care providers, and several other agencies providing medical treatment, drug and alcohol treatment, clothing and other services."


Over the past year, there have been only 29 felony arrests and about 80 minor arrests. Concurrently, of 500 people living in tents, 229 families have been sheltered in better living arrangements, 117 people were reunited with family, 100 people were successful in finding jobs, and they completed 40 clean-ups of camps around Colorado Springs.

I've mentioned before the problem of displacement. Because they were able to help with social service referrals and family reunifications, they managed to minimize displacement. Incidents and problems have diminished and police-related calls for service have declined.

Congratulations to the Colorado Springs community and its police department.

4 Replies so far - Add your comment

Josh K said...

We had a similar, albeit smaller problem in Kansas. Several transients set up a tent city on property no one wanted to claim (no man's land). One of our police recruits took the issue on as a project, but just as we were about to go into action plan, the homeless people mysteriously left the area (only to return later I'm sure).

I could not help but notice that with all the work we have put into problem solving our first attempts almost always involve enforcement. It is as if enforcement has to fail before we try other things. Its also occurred to me how tempting it is to avoid or ignore homelessness; you have to be willing to look mental illness and heavy addiction in the face - a potentially most unpleasant experience. Its much easier to maintain the professional distance of enforcement.

Submitted by Josh K

GSaville said...

Excellent point Josh. You have nailed it - the police tendency towards simple enforcement. In my experience it is the single most critical thing that determines whether or not police agencies engage in problem-oriented policing! And I think you are absolutely right. The impulse for many police is to default to the best known strategy - enforcement - and maintain that "professional" distance.

It is almost an impulse control issue falling into the realm of emotional and social intelligence competency training!

Thankfully for people like you, and the problem-solvers in the Colorado Springs police (and the other submitters/winners at this year's POP Conference), a few in the police world are leading the way.

Robert Arroyo said...

I read E.I. by Goleman in 1995. It makes for a safer street cop because it
causes one to think before rushing in to danger.

It's a good topic and hopefully it infiltrates the police culture.
Robert Arroyo, Los Angeles.

GSaville said...

Yes Robert, I agree. Back in 2000 myself and Gerry Cleveland were curricula designers on a project to update field training (PTO). At that time we began incorporating EI into that program, probably one of the first times that was done in police training. We're still at it today. Check out

Thanks for the comment.