Homelessness, Crime, Disorder, and Retail

Defining the Issues and Discussing Solutions

Many retailers are facing unprecedented levels of retail crime and violence, further complicated by social and physical disorder in and around store locations. These conditions often make places feel uncontrolled and even hostile to normal social activities, leading individuals to avoid them altogether.

In 2023, the National Retail Federation (NRF) conducted the thirty-second annual National Retail Security Survey, and for the second year, the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) collaborated on the study. One of the most interesting findings from the report was that over 72 percent of participating retailers reported issues related to homelessness were a higher priority than just one year ago.

At the same time, retailers were reporting unprecedented violence and theft. Discussions with retailers reveal that the retail crime problem and the homelessness problem are related. While there have been many discussions about the role of homelessness in relation to retail crime and disorder, these issues are very complex, and much is still unknown.

The Causes of Homelessness in America

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The causes of homelessness can be discussed in terms of risk and protective factors. Risk factors are conditions, characteristics, and experiences that increase the likelihood that someone will experience homelessness, while protective factors are conditions that reduce the likelihood that an individual will experience homelessness.

In their 2010 review of homelessness research, Lee, Tyler, and Wright identified many causes of homelessness ranging from broad social conditions to individual vulnerabilities and conditions that contribute to homelessness. At one end of the spectrum, broad macro-social issues, such as economic trends, social policy shifts, demographic trends, and the availability of affordable housing units, all contribute to rates of homelessness. At the other end of the spectrum are micro-social and individual factors that influence the likelihood an individual will experience homelessness. Examples of these factors include domestic violence, a history of mental health or substance use disorders, and a history of family conflict or homelessness, among other factors.

The mere presence of one or more of these risk factors does not necessarily lead to homelessness. Rather, the likelihood of whether one will experience homelessness is influenced by the quantity and severity of risk factors, in conjunction with the presence or absence of protective factors. For example, if an individual has a history of family conflict as well as mental health and substance use disorders but has a supportive family and marketable skills, they may be less likely to experience homelessness when compared to those who have similar risks but do not share the same protective factors.

The causes of homelessness are also complex because the causal order is not always clear—for example, many have asked whether mental health affects homelessness or whether homelessness affects mental health. Research suggests that both are true; in other words, mental health disorders are associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing homelessness, but the stresses and strains of homelessness also contribute to worsening mental health disorders.

The Distribution of Homelessness in America

Government agencies like the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) keep track of this issue and regularly issue national reports so there is much we know about the distribution of chronic homelessness throughout the country. Most recently, HUD released its homelessness statistics for 2022; additionally, HUD has been working with “Continuums of Care” to collect homelessness data for years.

One of the most important things we learned from this data is that homelessness is not evenly distributed throughout the United States. The homelessness rate (per 100,000 residents) is much greater in western states such as California, Washington, and Oregon, as well as many states in the Northeast, than in other states across the country. Figure 1 shows which states have higher or lower rates of homelessness. For the purposes of this article, we examined all types of homelessness combined.

Since these statistics have been tracked for years, we can also examine the trends in homelessness over time. For example, Figure 2 above shows which states have experienced the greatest increases or decreases in homelessness from 2012 to 2022. Over the past ten years, homelessness has become worse in many states, especially on the West Coast and in the Northeast, although Tennessee and Louisiana are notable exceptions.

Finally, while these state trends are helpful to understand, it is also helpful to understand which cities, urban areas, and suburban areas have the greatest numbers of homeless. HUD also tracks the data in terms of the number of homeless living in areas served by “Continuums of Care.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “Continuums of Care” as local planning bodies responsible for coordinating the full range of homelessness services in a geographic area which may cover a city, county, metropolitan area, or an entire state.

While the 2022 HUD tables (Table 1) show that many of the cities with the largest homeless populations are in states on the West Coast, approximately two in ten homeless individuals live in one of two cities—New York and Los Angeles.

Homelessness, Crime, and Disorder in Retail Spaces

There is research showing a link between some types of homelessness and crime (especially chronic homelessness), and a large body of research showing relationships between homelessness, mental health, and substance use disorders. However, when it comes to physical and social disorder, homelessness is often associated with these outcomes, by definition. For example, the presence of homeless individuals in an area is often used as an indicator of social disorder, while makeshift shelters may be used as an indicator of physical disorder.

Unfortunately, one of the major problems the retail industry faces is that we do not have adequate data on the role of homeless populations in retail crime and disorder.

Most retailers we have talked to at the LPRC do not have data on the impact of homeless populations, and if they do, it is not in an easily usable format and incidents involving homeless individuals may not be recorded as such. For example, if a retail crime involved a homeless individual, then the incident report might include that information only if it would help with the case. Otherwise, it would be unusual for retailers to collect information about the housing status of subjects with whom they interact.

Nevertheless, there is research showing that homeless individuals are more likely to be both the victims and the perpetrators of crime and are more likely to have interactions with law enforcement. For example, a recent study by the San Diego District Attorney’s Office showed that, among defendants in San Diego County, homeless individuals were more likely to be represented as victims and offenders than those who were not homeless. In fact, among the 53,163 adult cases from November 2019 through October 2021, 16.7 percent involved homeless defendants despite the fact that homeless individuals are a fraction of 1 percent of the population in San Diego County.

Homelessness and Property Crime

In discussions with retailers, they note many criminal concerns involving homeless populations. Homeless individuals are often involved in property crimes such as theft, burglary, arson, vandalism, and others. While retailers do not have sufficient data about the relative rates of these types of crimes, the San Diego report discussed earlier found that the rate of theft cases per 1,000 homeless individuals was fifty-eight times greater than the rate among non‑homeless. Similarly, the vandalism rate was 222 times greater, and the arson rate was 514 times greater among the homeless.

One of the most common concerns is theft, which is often categorized into two primary types. On the one hand, some retailers have identified a relationship between homelessness and the theft of essentials like underwear, socks, and personal hygiene products. On the other hand, ORC rings often target these items, making it difficult to determine the proportion stolen by homeless individuals for personal use or resale, versus the proportion that is part of broader ORC efforts.

However, homeless individuals may contribute to ORC. In some cases, drug dealers will trade illicit substances for stolen merchandise. These dealers do not care about the origin of the merchandise—they just know that they can trade the drugs at market price for a fraction of the value of stolen merchandise, which they can then also sell. Of course, trading drugs for stolen merchandise carries additional risks, so many fences will simply pay a fraction of the retail price for stolen merchandise that they can then sell.

Homeless individuals may also steal product and sell it in open-air “markets” on the street, laying all the stolen merchandise out and giving passersby the opportunity to purchase the items.

Homelessness, Aggression, and Violence

Homelessness is also a concern for many retailers because some homeless individuals can be aggressive, if not outright violent, toward retail workers and guests. Unfortunately, once again, it is difficult to understand the full extent of this problem because retailers simply do not have the necessary data. This is not because retailers do not track violent incidents—they do; however, retailers do not typically record the housing status of suspects.

Nevertheless, individuals do not have to engage in violent behavior to be concerning—erratic or unpredictable behavior is often sufficient to generate concern. Many studies have found that mental health conditions and substance abuse are more prevalent among the homeless than the general population, and these mental health issues often precede homelessness. Further, these mental health conditions are often exacerbated by the stress and strains of being homeless.

There are times when mental health issues among homeless individuals can translate into violence and aggression toward others. Those who suffer from serious mental illness may suffer from paranoia and may be confused about who people are, and this paranoia and confusion can be exacerbated by substance abuse. This may lead to aggression or even violence against others around them, including retail workers, retail guests, and even other homeless individuals.

As the data from places like San Diego shows, homeless individuals are over-represented in cases involving predatory violence such as robbery. In fact, in San Diego, the rate of aggravated assault among San Diego defendants was 130 times greater among the homeless when compared to non-homeless defendants. Of course, one of the problems with this data is that, like all official data, it only includes cases that are known to the criminal justice system, and cases involving homeless individuals may be more likely to be reported to the police.

In addition, research shows that homeless individuals are also more likely to be victims of violent crimes than non-homeless. For example, the first‑of‑its-kind study in San Diego revealed that homeless individuals were much more likely to be victims of murder, attempted murder, robbery, domestic violence, aggravated assault, elder abuse, and sexual assault.

Homelessness, Social Disorder, and Physical Disorder

As mentioned at the outset, homelessness is often associated with physical and social disorder. This is because homelessness and signs of homelessness are known indicators of social and physical disorder. Moreover, they are signs that the communities, individuals, organizations, institutions, and agencies responsible for maintaining social and physical order have failed to do so.

It is easier to conceptualize the meaning of physical and social disorder when contrasting them with their opposites. Ideally, social order is characterized by individuals being fully integrated into community life, the economy, and other key institutes, and people “getting along.” Likewise, physical order is characterized by things being in their place, used for their intended purpose. This is an oversimplification of these concepts, but these definitions help us understand what disorder represents.

Homelessness is associated with disorder because, by definition, individuals are without a home—they lack a designated space that serves the normal functions of a home. Therefore, these individuals must live, eat, and sleep in spaces that are not designed to serve these functions or meet these needs. They are left to achieve all the functions of a home in a public setting that is intended for other purposes. This is key because all the issues associated with homelessness involve a failure to maintain order.

The truth is that all the crimes mentioned earlier are, in fact, forms of social disorder, many of which contribute to physical disorder. Take substance abuse for example—research shows that rates of substance use disorders are greater among those who are chronically homeless and substance abuse is known to cause physical disorder in retail environments. Disorder that includes everything from dealing with hazardous fluids and discarded paraphernalia (e.g., syringes and tourniquets), to handling overdoses in retail fitting rooms and restrooms. This has been particularly problematic in cities in the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest but is a problem throughout the United States.

Recently, the Sacramento District Attorney filed suit against the City of Sacramento for failing to enforce laws and allowing homelessness-related issues to become a public nuisance. The lawsuit seeks several actions by the city, including enforcement of existing laws and local ordinances, banning daytime camping in public places, and an audit of where funds to address homelessness have gone. One of the complaints made by the Sacramento DA is that the city has taken actions to protect government-owned facilities, but this same protection is not afforded to others, such as business owners.

The Role and Response of Retail Loss Prevention and Security

Unfortunately, loss prevention, asset protection, and retail security programs are not designed to solve massive and complex social problems like homelessness or America’s substance use problem. As a society, we want to eliminate homelessness and there are many organizations working to do just this, including many retail companies. However, until homelessness is eliminated, retailers will need to address many of the issues they face. In the case of loss prevention and retail security, they must continue to focus on preventing losses and ensuring that people, places, property, and other assets are secured.

While we recognize that those suffering from homelessness and substance use disorders are not the only ones contributing to the retail crime problem, or even today’s rampant social and physical disorder, we do know that homeless populations are a large part of these issues in cities across the nation. Therefore, we must do whatever we can to begin to address the many challenges discussed throughout this article.

What Can Be Done?

With all of that said, there are many things that retailers can do to help address social disorder, physical disorder, and crime associated with both the housed and unhoused. There are also specific things retailers can do to address problem behaviors among homeless populations.

Connecting Individuals with Social Services Before Law Enforcement Must Be Called

In 2020, a retailer approached the LPRC asking about how they might more effectively address issues related to homelessness in and around their stores. In many cases, the retailer ended up calling law enforcement on homeless individuals because of crimes they were committing. However, this was not an ideal solution because it created additional work for already over-burdened law enforcement agencies and, more importantly, it did not have a long-term effect on the problems.

My first suggestion to them was to attempt to connect homeless individuals with social services whenever possible. This takes a bit of work, but if retailers can learn more about social service providers in the areas they serve, then they may be able to call on these organizations to help homeless individuals before they commit crimes or contribute to social and physical disorder in and around their stores. Fortunately, there are many agencies that keep directories of social service providers, including public health, law enforcement, and juvenile justice systems. Ideally, each store should have a directory of local social services they can call when working with homeless individuals.

The best place to start identifying available resources is via the “Continuums of Care” mentioned earlier. These local planning bodies often have directories of social services and may be able to share them. If you would like to contact a Continuum of Care for a specific area, please refer to the directory here: www.hudexchange.info/grantees/contacts/. Be sure to filter the grantees according to whether they are part of the “COC: Continuums of Care Program” because this directory also contains many other organizations that are not related to homelessness.

Situational and Environmental Deterrents

There are also situational and environmental measures that prevent issues related to homelessness. Many of the traditional techniques, such as enhanced lighting and surveillance technologies, are one option; however, there are other approaches that can also help ensure spaces are used as intended.

For example, some retailers are using mobile surveillance units to deter loitering and other unauthorized behaviors. These can be especially useful in areas without access to power or data transfer because they are typically solar-powered. These units enable surveillance of parking lots and other spaces, but they are also equipped with talk‑down capabilities to send messages to individuals engaging in undesirable behavior. The LPRC has conducted research on the effects of these units that suggests they are a promising solution for issues related to homelessness, and we will be publishing the findings in the coming months.

Similarly, there are other environmental things that can be done, including using sound. There are several devices on the market that emit an annoying noise to deter loitering. Others have experimented with other sounds, such as classical music (because it is in the public domain), but I have yet to see any data suggesting that it deters loitering or unacceptable behaviors.

Retailers may provide benches or seats so guests can take a break during a shopping trip or wait for their ride. However, these accommodations are often abused by homeless individuals who sleep on or camp out around the benches. If retailers want to provide this convenience while also ensuring that the accommodations are not abused, they can use benches that subdivide the seats into smaller areas; this prevents individuals from lying down on the benches. However, it is also possible to simply remove the benches altogether, as well as anything else that is leading to undesirable behaviors.

There are also physical deterrents to unacceptable behaviors including the use of defensive architecture when designing buildings and walkways. For example, retailers may consider installing studs that are uncomfortable to sleep on. While these types of devices can deter sleeping, retailers should be careful to only install devices that are not trip hazards, or something that will not discourage desirable behaviors. Similarly, landscaping can be used as a more aesthetically pleasing deterrent. In some cases, boulders and large rocks have been used to prevent encampments.

Maintaining an impression of control is incredibly important. One of the most important solutions is to have place managers helping to control unacceptable behaviors. A place manager is anyone who can help manage behaviors and conditions in a particular place. This might be an employee who retrieves carts, a store greeter, a parking lot attendant, or a guard. Notice how the guard is mentioned last—most forms of social control and order maintenance can be accomplished by non-guard staff.

Cory Lowe and his father

If people believe they will not be able to sleep in your parking lot or on your sidewalk because everything is being maintained, then they will be less likely to attempt to do so. This is especially true if individuals are taking care of these spaces, removing litter, and enforcing anti-loitering policies. Unfortunately, as people (including homeless individuals) continue to become more aggressive and violent, this may become more difficult to do.


This has been a very difficult article for me to write. My dad, who was one of the most intelligent, hardworking, artistic, and kind men I have ever met (especially when he was sober), died of a drug overdose on July 2, 2020. This was just weeks before I submitted my dissertation to finish my PhD. My last conversation with him was on June 27, 2020.

You never know when you will have your last conversation with a parent, and, if I had, I would have spent it discussing other things. Nevertheless, because he was very difficult to contact, we had a lot to catch up on. He asked me about my work, and I explained to him the research we do at the LPRC, including interviews with offenders.

One of the last things my dad did was offer to help me recruit retail offenders for research, because he said he knew several people who were stealing and reselling the merchandise or, more often, trading the merchandise for drugs.

My father spent many months of the last two years of his life homeless until two of my uncles were able to get him a place to live. My father was not “homeless” because he did not own a home—he did. He was just not capable of living a sober and peaceful life with my mother in the home they owned. As I have written this article, I have kept my father in mind. There are many complex issues that affect whether a person experiences homelessness, but, in many cases, the behaviors in which many homeless individuals are engaging are unacceptable, regardless of their housing status.

Solving homelessness is beyond the mandate of retail loss prevention and security programs; therefore, these teams must focus on the behaviors they can influence. Some of these behaviors are related to the housing status of individuals (e.g., the presence of makeshift housing), but most of the behaviors discussed throughout this article have nothing to do with whether an individual is homeless or not—substance use, littering, improper use of public amenities, etc. are not unique to the homeless.

However, as I have outlined in this article, homeless populations do contribute to all these problems. So, while retail loss prevention can focus on preventing and controlling problem behaviors in the spaces for which they are responsible, retailers need the help of policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels to help address the root causes of homelessness.

When I see homeless individuals (and especially homeless men), I cannot help but think about my father and all the circumstances that led to his homelessness and death. There were many things that might have helped him take a different path, but, in the end, he overdosed at a house that two of my uncles provided for him. This is why I always try to encourage retailers to connect homeless individuals with services before law enforcement becomes necessary—we may be able to avoid some of the problems retailers face while also helping those who desperately need it.

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