Police, Judges and Homeless People

Two stories in the news caught my eye over the past little while: this one where a Montreal police officer was filmed threatening to tie a homeless man to a pole in the freezing cold; and this one where a judge in Prince Edward Island put a homeless man in jail for the night because there was not enough space in the hospital where she felt he would be better served. Sure, they both came from Canada, but they are likely very relevant to what is happening in your community.

On the one hand, we see shortcomings in law enforcement in engaging effectively and humanely with homeless persons. Unfortunately, it paints many in police forces in a similar light, which is unfair and untrue. In my travels I have been fortunate to see the likes of the Grand Junction, Colorado police be very proactive in working with homeless people; hands-on street outreach by the likes of Deputy Steven Donaldson in the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (Tampa) who achieves amazing things in helping homeless folks access housing and resources to stay housed; police working well with street outreach like the DOAP Team at Alpha House in Calgary. I’d like to think that officers like the one in Montreal are the exception, not the norm. But maybe that is wishful thinking. The horror stories about police officers I have heard in my travels would fill a book.


On the other hand, we see the justice system trying to address what, in the instance in PEI, is a shortcoming in the health care system. It would seem the judge had the wellbeing of the man at heart in reaching her conclusion of having the man put in jail when there was no space in the hospital. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the man’s freedom was suspended in this instance, as a result of an intervention of the court. Nor can we ignore that if the person would be best served by a health intervention, that is most often going to be preferable to the justice intervention.


The bigger question, perhaps, is what is the role of police and judges in the lives of homeless people? And secondly, whether police and judges have the training they need to work effectively with homeless people? (This parks the question of what training homeless service providers, police and judges need to work well with each other…a blog for another day.)


There are community policing efforts where cops know many – if not most – of the street involved people in their beat. Many a time there is a cordial exchange. There are many instances of police also helping ensure the safety of homeless persons on the street. But it seems to me we can do a better job of integrating police into the solution of encouraging and working with people that are street involved to access housing.


There are diversion courts and even programs where outreach workers hang around courtrooms waiting for homeless persons (most often being held on remand) to be released so that they can provide assistance. Seems to me this is a large investment to remedy a situation where a more cost effective solution may be available if there was better information exchange between the courts and homeless serving agencies, and a change in policy that prevented, say, people being released from courts at 4pm on a Friday afternoon of a long weekend.


The role of police and judges should never be to target homeless people because of their homelessness. Involvement in criminal activity makes anyone fair game for policing efforts. But being without a home, or being economically poor, should never be a criminal offence. Police “crackdowns” on specific neighborhoods to “move people along” doesn’t solve anything. It is highly ineffective and very expensive.


As a society, it would seem we have misplaced investment in government assisted housing with investment in prisons and jails. In some places, the creation of more cells is the only housing development (albeit, in the “big house”) that has happened. Incarcerating people exacerbates homelessness. It doesn’t solve it. And it too is remarkably expensive. Many of the same people want lower taxes also want to be tough on crime. Want to reduce crime? House people.


Given the level of interaction that police and judges have with homeless persons, especially chronically homeless people with higher acuity, they should be trained on what homelessness is and the most effective approaches and interventions to end it. Instead, I see an absence of this in my travels, where police and judges are using their best guesses and judgment rather than data and evidence. This is a solvable problem. With small investment, police and judges can learn considerably more about homelessness and its associated issues, thereby encouraging better and more cost effective solutions.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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