In our latest website survey, Sandra K. asked: How can we help educate our police force about their interaction/dealing with the homeless population, especially the individuals with mental illness diagnosis?

This is a good question and as usual, a complex one. As first responders in many crisis and emergency situations, police officers frequently interact with people experiencing homelessness. In many places, mental health systems are fragmented and inadequate, which further complicates these interactions. Police officers are generally not equipped to counsel or take on the effects of socioeconomic issues, which is what this population really needs. 

People experiencing homeless and mental health issues

An estimated 30-35% of people experiencing homelessness also have a diagnosis of mental illness, and sometimes multiple. And as many researchers and activists have noted, Canada’s mental health system is not equipped to deal with these issues. As described in the 2014 Toronto report, Police Encounters with People in Crisis:

…Ontario does not have a coordinated, comprehensive approach to treating mental health issues. Instead, there is a patchwork collection of hospitals, community treatment organizations, housing programs, and mental health practitioners, only some of which receive public funding—funding that is, in any event, often inadequate to meet the needs of the community.

The same report considers community-based mental health services, peer-based groups and supports, and housing supports and services as valuable for people diagnosed with mental illness. Back in 2009, the Mental Health Commission of Canada released a report recommending that services be integrated and available to those who need them, and prioritized recovery- and community-based practices and services. 

Despite these reports, many conversations about policing and people with mental illness favour solutions of domination and control. For example, Boyd and Kerr recently studied four Vancouver police department reports (VPD reports) on the city’s “mental health crisis,” finding that such reports call for re-institutionalization and increased police presence, and linked people with mental health issues with violence and danger – thus reproducing many negative stereotypes about people diagnosed with mental illness. Instead of focusing on existing services and how they could be better integrated, police departments tend to think about action in terms of control. According to the study’s authors, the effects of such reports are dramatic:

The VPD reports also shift discourse and practice away from health and community supports, social supports, livable housing and peer-run organizations for those most affected. Rather, reinstitutionalization and secure units in hospitals are assumed to be a solution, alongside increased surveillance. Thus, the VPD’s production of the mental health crisis and their proposed solutions have material effects. At the same time that police are calling for secure units for people with mental health problems and larger policing budgets, and contrary to the solutions proposed by the MHCC (2012) (such as support for peer-run services), the Province of BC and Vancouver Coastal Health have cut back on peer-run services for people with mental health concerns (Carten, 2013; Yong, 2013). Meanwhile, the VPD budget continues to rise each year, and in 2014 makes up 20 per cent of the total capital and operating budget for the City of Vancouver (2014, p. 49). In contrast, community services make up five per cent of the budget (Ibid.) (Boyd and Kerr, 2014).

What their research shows is how we discuss police interactions with people experiencing homelessness and/or mental health issues matters. If we present homeless people as dangerous and the problem as a lack of police resources – when the problem is actually a lack of appropriate community and socioeconomic resources – our responses will only strengthen police forces, ignoring the root of the issue. 

Police harassmentConflict between police and people experiencing homelessness

There are many reasons why tensions exist between police officers and non-police officers. Police forces are a controlling, dominant institution, which naturally produces some conflict. And like many other institutions, systemic racism often plays a roie. The Black Lives Matter movement, which started in the United States after a police officer shot unarmed Michael Brown, has catalyzed action here in Canada. Here too, police officers have shot people of colour and actively practice carding, a profiling process which disproportinately documents this population. Journalist Desmond Cole, who wrote about his experience as a black man, says that "a shocking proportion of black people in Toronto have their names in a police database just for existing in public." This movement speaks to broader concerns about racism in our society and asks us to challenge the criminalization and disregard with which our institutions treat people of colour, especially black people.

Homeless and poverty themselves are actively criminalized through laws against sleeping outdoors, panhandling, squeegeeing, etc. This is especially true for youth experiencing homelessness, who are frequently carded and given tickets. In a 2011 Toronto study of 244 street youth, 78% reported having an encounter with police – about three quarters of those participants reported more than one; and 33% were given a ticket (males at twice the rate of females). According to Gaetz, issuing these tickets under the Safe Streets Act cost about $1 million in police hours and needlessly burdens already poor people with more debts. In his 2011 study of homelessness in Montreal, Douglas found that “it was not uncommon for homeless young people to have $7000 to $20,000 worth of tickets.” 

In other areas, people can be arrested simply for having a shopping cart under “probable theft.” California police forces have used people experiencing homeless in police training programs, like California’s Drug Recognition Evaluator Program, in exchange for not arresting them. (Not really much of a choice there). 

Another factor that complicates police involvement in the lives of those who are homeless and/or diagnosed with mental illness is the fact that some do actually engage in illegal activities. As described in our section on crime: “Some people, by virtue of their situations, are excluded from competing in the formal economy for jobs and turn to quasi-legal strategies (panhandling, squeegeeing and sex trade) or illegal activities (theft, drug dealing) to make money and survive.” This makes these people very unlikely to welcome help from police officers; and instead makes them more likely to be ticketed, arrested and/or charged. 

For all these reasons and more, there is little trust between people experiencing homelessness and police officers. In a 2004 study of Toronto shelter users, 69% stated they would call police in an emergency (compared to 92%, who said they would call paramedics). As the authors note, this isn’t entirely unexpected: “Paramedics have a clearly defined helping role, whereas the police serve a more complex function in society that can result in significant conflict.” In the same study, 1 in 10 participants said police had assaulted them. Negative experiences with police contribute to low levels of trust and decrease the likelihood of calling them for assistance. 

Training options to improve contact

Police officers cannot replace healthcare and social workers, but they still need to understand the impact, causes and effects of homelessness and mental health issues; and know how to interact with people with these experiences. Coleman reviewed police training literature and found that “the literature is unequivocal that education and training of police personnel in conjunction with mental health professionals and persons living with mental illness is critical to improved police/PMI [persons with mental illness].” He also wrote that:

… preparation should include structured and focused learning. Even though the literature is not clear about what works and does not work with respect to improving outcomes, there are strong indications that de-escalation techniques based on understanding mental illnesses and their attendant symptoms as well as appropriate oral communication skills are just two of the key elements for success.

Similarly, a 2013 U.S. study found that role-play training with scripted actors was a successful approach: “Compared to previous years, there was a significant increase in the recognition of mental health issues as a reason for a call (40%), improved efficiency in dealing with mental health issues, and a decrease in weapon or physical interactions with mentally ill individuals.” The goals of the training was to “increase empathy, communication skills, and the ability of officers to de-escalate potentially difficult situation” and included feedback from mental health professionals and the actors themselves (“this is how you made me feel”). 

While police training is vital to improving contact with people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues, we must go beyond it. As the story of Alain Magloire – a homeless man who was shot to death by police in Montreal – showed us, training simply isn’t enough to keep homeless people safe. The inquest found that police in Quebec only receive about 15 weeks of training regarding homelessness and mental health issues, and while they can opt to receive more training, it isn’t used frequently. 

A U.S. study of policies across 100 police departments found that training and policies varied widely, and that large municipal agencies make the most contact and provide more services. Through interviews, the study also found that police officers feel frustrated and overburdened; some said they felt harassed and targeted by some people who are homeless – likely due to the issues I wrote about above. 

Other police forces have integrated other services to better serve people who are homeless. In Anaheim, there are psychiatric emergency response teams, available homelessness resources and homeless liaison officers; and in Houston, the police force has taken an explicitly compassionate stance towards people experiencing homelessness. The key to improving contact with people who are homeless and/or diagnosed with mental illness is part appropriate training (and changing attitudes) and part improving how police forces connect with community-based services. 

What to find out about your police force

Hopefully I’ve made it clear that what we really need is to improve the functioning of our existing mental health services. That said, it’s still worth taking a look at how we can improve interactions between this population and police. Attend public meetings about your police force and get in touch with the police board (if there is one). Here are some questions to consider when learning about and engaging with your local police force: 

  • What kind of training do officers get on mental health and homelessness? (Is there a focus on communication, empathy and de-escalation; or does it simply recommend force?)
  • What understandings of race, class, gender, ability, and orientation are present? 
  • What is the policy on people in crisis? What is the role of first responders, and do counselors/advocates accompany them? 
  • Does it have an outreach program? If so, does it include people with lived experience of homelessness?
  • Does it go beyond psychiatric hospitals and connect with community-based services?

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty