Not long ago, a majority of police leaders said their job, when it came to people experiencing homelessness, was mostly just to keep them off the streets and out of public view. Today, some communities are starting to confront homelessness as a societal problem, not a personal failure—and that means rethinking how police respond.

Police need better policies and partnerships to address homelessness. But many departments don't even have a working definition of what homelessness means, much less data on what works to get people off the streets.

Research that could guide those efforts is surprisingly thin. Plenty of studies have tried to get under the root causes of homelessness, and to identify solutions that could make a real difference to people who need it. But those studies have suffered from inconsistent definitions, inadequate data, and inconclusive results. Researchers and experts generally agree that the old approach—telling people to move along and writing them tickets or putting them in handcuffs if they didn't comply—was a poor substitute for meaningful action.

But what should replace it? That question has mostly been left up to individual departments to solve, even individual officers, with few proven examples to guide them.

Police agencies and the communities they serve need more data, and better data, if they want to address homelessness in a consistent way, researchers concluded. A good first step would be to establish a clear definition of who is homeless. Federal agencies provide no less than three possible definitions for homeless youth, for example. Without a single definition, communities can't know how many of their residents are experiencing homelessness, how the numbers are changing, or whether their efforts are making any difference.

That would also allow for the in-depth, rigorous evaluations that researchers found are so often lacking. Police need national models—tried, tested, and proven to work—as they invest in new partnerships and new ways of working to address homelessness.

“We used to give people a single chance: 'You don't want help? You can leave or go to jail,'” said Officer Steve Oehring, who shares a squad car with the program therapist, Cynthia Ferreiro. “That really doesn't take care of the problem long-term. The approach now is, 'How can we help you? Where can we take you? What do you need?'”

Read the full article about policing homelessness by Doug Irving at RAND Corporation.