Over half a million Americans are currently homeless. According to a recent report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, on a single night in 2020, approximately 580,000 people were homeless in the United States, a 2 percent increase since 2019 and the fourth consecutive annual increase nationwide.
Nearly six out of ten people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in 2020 did so in an urban area, with more than half (53 percent) of all unsheltered people counted in the Continuums of Care (CoCs) that encompass the nation’s fifty largest cities. CoCs are designed to promote a communitywide commitment to ending homelessness — providing funding for nonprofit efforts and state and local governments to rehouse individuals and families while minimizing trauma and dislocation and promoting access and use of mainstream programs. There are approximately 400 of these programs covering virtually the entire US in urban, suburban, and rural communities.
Contributing Factors to Homelessness
The breadth, causes, and consequences faced by these growing homelessness populations turn what many believe to be a nuisance into a major public health concern. Homelessness is closely tied to deteriorated mental and physical health, issues related to substance use, exposure to HIV infection, and other life-threatening illnesses. While some of these issues may appear prior to homelessness, these problems are exacerbated by various factors associated with barriers to health and mental health care, lack of adequate food and shelter, and limited resources and social services. Furthermore, many homeless individuals come from a background of maltreatment or victimization, having dealt with substance abuse and mental health issues as well as having been in foster care or incarcerated. Rates of homelessness are also higher among racial minorities and LGBTQ+ individuals.
In addition to personal risk factors, our society has created structural conditions placing those already at risk for homelessness closer to the streets. Since 2012, the US has been facing a rental affordability crisis whereby the number of low-cost units (less than $600 in rent per month) has fallen by 3.1 million, and the number of units renting for $1,000 or more shot up by 5 million. All the while, the federal response to address affordable housing needs has been characterized by funding delays and less-than-adequate subsidies, contributing to the uptick in homelessness. In fact, a recent study commissioned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found the lack of affordable housing to be a main driver of unsheltered homelessness — a problem exacerbated by COVID-19 and its associated financial crisis.
And while emergency, temporary shelters serve as a safety net for these individuals, the lack of beds and barriers to entry and services keep individuals on the streets. According to HUD’s 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, there were 301,589 beds in emergency shelters across the U.S. In that same year, there were an estimated 550,500 homeless people across the country. Common barriers to access include sobriety restrictions, mandates to participate in treatment, and the exclusion of individuals with criminal records.
Homelessness-Related Crime and Disorder
Homelessness is intrinsically related to the built environment — different structures provide temporary shelters for transient individuals as well as place constraints on the activities of homeless people (for example, where they travel and their day-to-day activities). A growing number of homeless people are using commercial retail locations for shelter and personal hygiene. Further, some beg or intimidate customers and associates for money, causing them to feel annoyed, threatened, or fearful. Others may shoplift or use that area to buy, sell, or use drugs on the premises, leaving drug paraphernalia behind.
Local retailers, among others, have become more vocal against issues related to homelessness and, while legislation criminalizing homelessness for vagrancy and loitering has been on the rise, homeless populations continue to pose a problem in commercial areas. These areas tend to appear run down, dirty, and disorganized and have many of the markers of what qualifies as disorder — described by researchers G.L. Kelling and C.M. Coles as “aggressive panhandling, street prostitution, drunkenness and public drinking, menacing behavior, harassment, obstruction of streets and public spaces, vandalism and graffiti, public urination and defecation, unlicensed vending and peddling,” among others. In addition to these “nuisance offenses,” the encampments become hubs of criminal activity, including the buying and selling of drugs, physical and sexual violence, and property offenses.
There are clear consequences of this for the local community and its businesses. Physical disorder and street crime surrounding retail areas, such as the examples mentioned earlier, may deter legitimate shoppers from entering businesses, leading to diminished sales. Additionally, the heightened risk of criminal offending includes property and violent offenses against retailers and employees. Numerous reports suggest that stores are seeing high rates of petty shoplifting, and in some cases, violent altercations between offenders and employees.
While some locales have begun to initiate anti-homeless policies, such as “no sit, no lie” ordinances, anti-camping restrictions, and anti‑food‑sharing policies, these issues persist across the US. So much so that retailers have initiated their own strategies to protect their people, places, and products. Stores like Walgreens have closed multiple locations in San Francisco due to petty theft, while CVS Pharmacy has asked its employees not to intervene in these cases because thieves often attack them. Other businesses, such as Target, have opted to restrict their hours in high-risk areas to reduce thefts and homeless‑related security issues.
Alternative solutions, however, are possible and may lead to more cost‑effective crime reductions that help businesses safeguard their people and profits and address the underlying issues of homelessness. While more research is needed, following is a brief discussion of current solutions. While many of these solutions have legal underpinnings, these legal, policy, and structural practices have not necessarily been made with a public health perspective in mind and may neglect many of the underlying issues pressing these communities.
Current Solutions and the Need for Systematic Change
Crime Prevention through Environmental Design. Businesses can protect themselves, their merchandise, and their employees through various environmental and administrative interventions. These include crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) practices and architectural deterrents, such as enhanced lighting, exposing those on the premises to “uncool” classical music or opera, and “bum-proof” outdoor benches that prevent homeless people from getting comfortable; examples include anti-homeless spikes, wave‑shaped benches, sloping seats, and benches with central armrests. And while this type of repelling architecture may stop homeless people from getting comfortable, it may be difficult to distinguish between a homeless person and a tired individual looking for a place to rest or read a book. Furthermore, the threatening appearance, level of annoyance, and discomfort created by these mechanisms may leave legitimate shoppers and visitors feeling unsafe and on edge. Finally, the use of these defensive designs do not address the underlying issues pressing the growing homeless community.
Enhancement of Retail Security. Instead of using these defensive and seemingly hostile architecture designs, business owners may push toward active monitoring or patrolling of their stores, parking lots, and vicinity. For example, they may use armed or unarmed security personnel at store entrances and increased staffing on the store floor.
Commercial spaces may also benefit from the use of CCTV cameras, although the crime reduction evidence is mixed and may depend on the type of crime. For example, these cameras may not prevent a homeless person from getting into an impulsive violent altercation and may do even less to prevent loitering.
Businesses may also protect their goods by using a range of product protection solutions, including keeper boxes, associate notification systems, and security tags. However, it is not just product protection that is of concern. Rather, business leaders are also worried about the safety and well-being of their associates and customers. Security tags on goods and alarms being triggered when unpaid merchandise goes through the front door is not going to stop some of these dangerous situations. Instead, guards and professionals trained in handling shoplifting and these forms of homeless-specific issues should be utilized to best safeguard people.
Policing Homelessness and Disorder. The general idea of dealing with physical and social disorder to prevent crime has become commonplace across policing strategies, from “order maintenance” and aggressive “broken-windows” practices, whereby police attempt to impose order through strict law enforcement, to “community” and “problem-oriented policing” tactics. In the former, law enforcement is called upon to respond to people living outside, criminalizing homelessness, and to issue citations and arrests for minor “public nuisance” crimes — such as loitering, camping, food sharing, and public urination — that are likely not to be committed if the person had some form of shelter. In fact, according to the California Policy Lab, people experiencing unsheltered homelessness surveyed between 2015 and 2017 reported an average of 21 contacts with police in the preceding six months, which was ten times the number of those living in shelters.
These order-maintenance approaches, such as the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI), can lead to significant reductions in violence, property and nuisance crimes, and disorder with little crime displacement when policing practices are in tune with the local criminal environment. However, effective interventions that focus on a specific locale will typically only make short-term differences and provide few benefits on a larger spatial and temporal scale.
A common criticism of these types of policing strategies is that they do not address the systemic issues of crime, homelessness, and their intersection. In contrast, “problem-oriented policing strategies,” consisting of law enforcement attempting to produce order and reduce crime through cooperation with community members and resources and addressing the underlying crime-generating issues, may be a more promising direction.
Investment in Community Resources. Historically, local laws have penalized activities associated with being homeless, such as sleeping in public and panhandling. These “crimes” are often classified as misdemeanors, resulting in arrests and fines and do not address the underlying issues surrounding homelessness. In addition to being ineffectual in getting homeless people off the street, having a criminal record can be a major obstacle in accessing housing, employment, and mental health or substance-related treatment, while continuing the cycle of people between hospitals and jails and the streets. Additionally, these stays in jail may disrupt people’s health care and disconnect them from their communities, potentially worsening underlying mental health or substance use issues.
Policy makers must also address whether these small and short-term reductions in homelessness and homelessness-related crime are worth the enhanced law enforcement costs. For example, the SCI consisted of a massive influx of law enforcement resources to Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. While it appeared that it may have been effective in clearing the tent cities, open‑air drug markets, and nearby business districts of crime and disorder, it was extremely costly to produce. The cost of fifty additional officers was estimated at $6 million dollars a year while each arrest was estimated to cost the city of Los Angeles $4,300, totaling out to $118 million spent during the lifetime of the program. Although these costs are not paid directly by local businesses, these services come from community tax dollars and funds that may be better spent on creating additional permanent housing and social services for local homeless populations, and creating long‑term crime reductions related to homelessness in the retail sector. In short, policing disorder and homelessness programs infused with community and problem-oriented principles, such as focusing on hot spot locations, modifying the underlying conditions that generate crime and disorder in these spaces, and forming strategic partnerships with community-based and social service organizations, seem best positioned to generate more permanent crime control gains and strengthen police‑community relations. Further, these partnerships would benefit from the involvement of community leaders and local business owners. With multiple parties focused on this issue, there is an opportunity to find common ground and reach common goals while acknowledging the various priorities among the parties.
According to research, effective partnerships between law enforcement, homelessness service providers, community leaders, and impacted business owners can be achieved through the following stages:
- Develop shared goals, clearly define roles, and engage all critical stakeholders.
- Use data to understand local needs and assess progress made in addressing these needs.
- Review and align local laws and ordinances to support the goals of the partnership. Equip law enforcement officers, homeless service provider systems, store managers, and associates with appropriate protocols and training to provide assistance to homeless individuals.
- Divert people from the criminal justice system while supporting long-term stabilization.
Concluding Thoughts and Next Steps
No single solution will solve homelessness and homelessness-related crime. Rather, communities, business leaders, service providers, and law enforcement should come together to address these issues systematically, for example, using CoCs. Furthermore, loss prevention practitioners and other key players should begin to take a more preventative, rather than reactive, approach to homelessness by addressing the underlying issues faced by downtrodden and displaced members of their community, and not relying solely on police, who may not have the time or resources to address these situations as they arise.
Following are next steps that should be of primary importance to researchers, retailers, and community leaders to best address homelessness. Keep in mind, the solutions are not limited to this list. More research and collaboration are needed if we are to succeed at addressing this public health crisis. To start, collaborative, intersystem teams should take the following steps:
- Understand the scope of homelessness and homelessness-related crime and how it relates to business practices.
- Benchmark current practices taken by members of the retail community to address homelessness and homelessness-related issues.
- Train store management and employees on whom to contact regarding homelessness services and to recognize when policing resources are not necessary. Developing a homelessness “toolkit” is one example.
- Support local practices that address affordable housing shortages, such as Housing First, Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), and trauma-informed care.
- Leverage cross-system partnerships to take stock of common challenges, share innovative practices, and identify areas where future policy guidance and technical assistance would be beneficial.
- Build a robust list of cost-effective, evidence-based practices for retail organizations to address homelessness and homelessness issues within their community.