Homelessness in the US has risen by 6 percent since 2017 for reasons ranging from a lack of affordable housing to record inflation. Major cities like New York and Los Angeles—which, combined, account for about a quarter of the country’s homeless population—have declared record levels of homelessness. Large retailers in hard-hit cities like San Francisco are closing shops due to the sharp rise in homeless individuals hanging out around their stores.
The presence of homeless individuals in retail areas can contribute to several adverse outcomes, including driving away customers, loss of revenue, and, increasingly, crime. Organized retail crime groups are also beginning to recruit homeless individuals as boosters to commit theft, according to the National Retail Federation’s Organized Retail Crime Report. While by no means is ORC just related to homelessness, the report said that an uncertain economy aids these criminal groups in attracting more vulnerable individuals, helping them scale their operations.
“A significant proportion of boosters are typically addicted to opioids or other hard drugs, are homeless, or are experiencing both conditions, and they use money earned from retail theft to meet their basic needs or support a drug habit, according to law enforcement sources, retail loss prevention professionals, and retail trade associations,” the report said.
There’s evidence that newer ORC groups are more inclined to use violent tactics in addition to enlisting the homeless as part of their activities. In their analysis of 132 ORC groups that had booster operations between 2014 and 2022, 16 percent employed at least one violent tactic, including using firearms or other weapons, smash-and-grab, battery, flash mobbing, and violent threats against store employees or customers. Of the twenty-one violent ORC groups analyzed for the study, fifteen launched operations in 2021. This indicates that this increase in violent tactics is more recent.
Addressing this intersection of homelessness and more violent ORC requires a nuanced approach. According to several individuals we spoke with for this story, the solutions include a mix of security technology, employee training, and empathetic communication.
Curbing Red Guest Behavior
In the Loss Prevention Foundation-hosted webinar Fear & Safety: Evaluating Parking Lot Interventions for Aggressive Street Behaviors, Orion Santangelo, a research scientist at the LPRC, described the difference between “green” guests and “red” guests at retail stores.
Green guests are “people that should be there” while red guests display aggressive, unwanted street behaviors possibly tied to homelessness, Santangelo said. The LPRC gathered intel about nationwide red guest behavior through focus groups and retailer responses; half said they encountered unwanted individuals in their vehicles, 43 percent at the store entrance or exit, and 7 percent inside the store.
“As we go into the holidays, some of these individuals are now working their way into the stores based on some of the weather patterns,” Santangelo noted in the webinar. “So there’s going to be an interesting aspect of where some behaviors are and how we can prevent that and get that recognizability, that noticeability of their safety and security if they’re coming into our parking lot to do those bad behaviors.”
The LPRC categorized unwanted behavior into five areas:
- Aggressive Street Behaviors: Accosting, stalking, yelling, indecent exposure
- Sleeping: In cars, tents, sidewalks, benches, tables and chairs, and parking spaces
- Panhandling: Asking for money in and around the store
- Drug and Alcohol Abuse: Open intoxication or substance use in and around the store
- Theft: Stealing from cars, car parts, shopping carts, cones, outdoor merchandise, etc.
The webinar noted that fear of crime can adversely affect several aspects of retail, such as the shopping experience, customer traffic, and employee performance.
“If you have customers who don’t feel safe, they’re not going to have a good experience,” said Matt Kelley, head of retail at LVT. “[Associates] are not going to have their time available to give good customer service, which is going to impact the voice of the customer, what their perception of your brand is. Ultimately, it could lead to turnover if you have a really unsafe environment.”
To understand how to combat these behaviors in a retail setting, the LPRC partnered with LVT to examine Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), which includes surveillance, access control, territorial reinforcement, and maintenance. They put LVT mobile surveillance units in the parking lots of twenty-one stores across the US through five waves that spanned ninety days. The units, equipped with cameras, speakers, and flashing lights, were active between 8 p.m and 4 a.m.
“This is all around creating that impression of control, making the green shoppers feel safer and deterring activity from the red shoppers,” said Kelley. “It’s creating that welcoming environment for your customers, but also, for the bad actors you don’t want on-site, letting them know you’re making an investment—whether it’s the natural surveillance, the access control, the reinforcement, setting a boundary around and protecting your location.”
The research found that the number of incidents involving violence and fear of crime decreased post-deployment of the mobile surveillance units based on customer reports and observations from store employees. Not only does this benefit the retailer, said Kelley, but it also helps law enforcement.
“It’s been, ‘Hey, these units free up my officers’ time to do policing work,’” he said. “They want to know that retailers, property management companies, or whomever else might be engaging with local law enforcement are making an effort to mitigate some of that activity rather than just looking to law enforcement to be their frontline defense.”
The deployment of the units is part of LVT’s efforts to better partner with retailers, the community, law enforcement, and local government, as detailed in our Spring cover story on the ACCESS Taskforce. LVT and the LPRC are both a part of the taskforce.
“Something that we are really focusing on with the LPRC is understanding that partnership, the collaboration, intelligence-driven decision-making,” Santangelo said. “Because everything we are trying to focus on as an industry is looking at how all these things interact and how we prevent future events.”
Over the years, retailers have deployed a variety of techniques and technology to help address the issue of the homeless who may be violating the law in and around their property. From robots to rock hardscaping to blasting music—retailers have tried it all. The LVT technology may be a game changer, but could it be even more effective when paired with a human touch?
Pairing Technology with Human Touch
Ryan Dowd is a self-described chief empathy officer who spent two decades volunteering and then working for a homeless shelter in Illinois. In the last few years, he’s used this experience to begin training various businesses on how to better engage with the homeless in a more empathetic, low-conflict way.
He began with libraries, in which a significant portion of users today are homeless, according to the American Library Association (ALA). The training “absolutely took off,” said Dowd, resulting in him getting a book deal from the ALA (The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness: An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone) and a 30-city tour with Emilio Estevez, who made a movie about libraries and homelessness called The Public. Dowd began building out his training on homelessness for businesses globally via HomelessTraining.com. He has since trained half a million people in six countries through in-person, online, and on-demand courses.
Recently, McDonald’s became a client of Dowd’s after the company’s leaders saw him speak at the Restaurant Loss Prevention and Security Association (RLPSA) conference last Spring. The global fast-food chain, which serves twenty-seven million customers daily in the US, also just signed on to pilot LVT’s mobile surveillance units at certain stores as part of its multi-faceted approach to keep employees and customers safe and satisfied.
“Homelessness has exploded so much in the last couple of years that there’s just way more interest in training on homelessness than there used to be,” Dowd said. “Street homelessness is on the rise pretty dramatically—that’s not hype—and mental health challenges have increased. Oftentimes, mental health challenges will lay dormant until stress causes them to pop: with COVID-19, a recession, and job loss, all of a sudden, you’ve got all these mental health issues popping.”
McDonald’s is experiencing much of what Dowd describes firsthand. Rob Holm, director of US security for McDonald’s, says loitering, panhandling in the drive-thru and parking lot, using washrooms to bathe or do other inappropriate activities, and using store Wi-Fi, and power are the chain’s most significant issues. The company’s past strategies for dealing with these problems were no longer working, Holm said.
“What we’re trying to do is provide our employees and managers with the information necessary to effectively deal when those situations do surface,” said Holm. “We provide them de-escalating aggressive behavior training, workplace violence prevention training—but this is nuanced. We need to augment and complement that training and build off of that to deal with these challenges. Dealing with a typical volatile customer or somebody who just got upset because their fries were cold, we can deal with that. But when you have somebody that is homeless and has dealt with trauma and has other issues, we have to address that a little differently.”
Because McDonald’s just signed the agreement with Dowd last month, Holm said they haven’t yet identified the topics for their training. The business will pursue areas based on its culture and the vocabulary with which its employees are familiar. Dowd’s primary training is four parts, but all the courses are modular, so businesses can build upon them as they go, depending on their focus areas. For example, if a company wants to know specifics about mental health, or how to call the police effectively, break up a fight, ask someone to leave safely, and even address body odor, Dowd has about forty additional specialized modules. His training is designed for frontline workers and does not cover security or physical infrastructure—that’s where LVT comes in for McDonald’s.
“We go at it with a multi-faceted approach,” said Holm. “We have a plethora of tools in our medicine bag of prescriptions to apply to those restaurants that have certain ailments.”
There’s No Cavalry Coming In
Retailers are increasingly being tasked with handling incidents involving the homeless on their own. Both Dowd’s training and the LVT technology are designed to help frontline workers be more self-sufficient when a potential issue arises. Dowd echoed a sentiment shared by both Kelley of LVT and Holm of McDonald’s that, increasingly, police are either unable or unwilling to respond to many incidents with problematic individuals at retail stores.
“What I’m hearing more and more of is these organizations saying, ‘The police just won’t help us, or can’t help us, and so we have to be able to handle this ourselves,’” said Dowd. “Whereas ten years ago, the policy was, ‘If X happens, call 911 and let them deal with it,’ now we have to train our staff on how to manage it because there’s no cavalry coming in.”
Dowd points out that only about 10 percent of people experiencing homelessness live unhoused chronically. These individuals often have mental health and substance abuse challenges. Those are the people businesses often encounter, not the other 90 percent, who may only be homeless for days, weeks, or months due to an economic or legal issue.
Dowd said that while the goals for businesses in different industries wanting to combat homelessness might differ, the techniques are essentially the same and are rooted in empathy. His approach is to provide background information on what a homeless individual might be experiencing, and the tools to help his clients get that person to comply without conflict. The number one thing any business can do, he said, is get the conversation with a homeless person right in the first five seconds. If an employee can keep that person calm and prevent the fight-or-flight response typical in homeless individuals suffering from trauma, there’s a higher likelihood of a better outcome, he said.
“The degree to which you understand even a little bit of what the other person’s experiencing in ways you are not experiencing those things, you’re going to have an easier time working with them and ultimately helping them to manage their behavior in your space,” he said. “You don’t need to have a PhD in psychology to have enough understanding of the other person’s life to be able to work with them. Education alone very rarely changes how someone views someone else. If you change how someone interacts with someone, it changes how they view them—the good interaction needs to come first.”
Not only is there the safety factor when trying to ward off potential conflict with people experiencing homelessness, but in our age of social media, if a staff member mishandles a situation, the internet will find out about it—perhaps through a video filmed on someone’s cell phone. These public relations crises can cripple a business.
Even if companies aren’t considering a new approach to engaging with people experiencing homelessness out of the goodness of their hearts, Dowd said the more compassionate approach is the more effective one. This doesn’t mean he advocates for an overly permissive approach—he knows people need to follow rules. But he wants to help businesses go about it in a more humane way.
“Coming down, yelling at people, threatening, cracking skulls, it doesn’t work with someone with PTSD,” he said. “I get to help businesses with a problem they have, and the solution is to treat homeless people better. Everybody wins.”
The Path Forward
Addressing the root causes of homelessness is something out of the hands of retailers. But they can help address its impact on their stores and, by extension, the surrounding communities. And they don’t have to do it alone. By considering technologies to help guard the physical store property and empathy-based training to help employees better handle situations without major disruption to customers, retailers can deter adverse behaviors in a way that preserves dignity for all invovled.