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USD study looks at homeless, police encounters

University of San Diego researchers are looking into encounters between homeless people and law enforcement as part of a study that could help shape policies on enforcement and outreach.

Mike Williams, a professor of political science and international relations at USD and director of the school’s Change Maker Hub, said five homeless people were interviewed and records of arrests and citations were analyzed as part of the first part of the study.

Students will continue the research this summer by interviewing law enforcement officials.

“We realized that we’re getting part of the story, and we really felt it was important to learn from law enforcement and their perceptions,” Williams said, adding that the study could be published in the fall.

The study is part of the school’s Urgent Challenges Collective, which also has conducted studies on the stigma of homelessness, San Diego laws related to homelessness dating back to 1983 and other related subjects.

The study looked at four key questions: How regularly do homeless people encounter law enforcement? How do they perceive the encounters? Under what conditions are they cited? What effects and/or barriers do the citations create for them?

Williams said their study found that San Diego police regularly enforced 11 laws on encroachment, loitering, illegal lodging, panhandling, solicitation and vehicle habitation, resulting in 5,861 citations and 414 arrests between 2010 and early 2021.

During that time, 47 percent of all citations were for encroachment violations and 42 percent of arrests were for illegal lodging.

The study also looked at race and found that Black homeless people were four times more likely to receive a citation or be arrested while homeless than White homeless people.

Despite the low number of people interviewed, Williams said they did find some common themes.

“They feel invisible to society,” he said. “They’re just kind of looked over. But the ones we talked to about law enforcement said they felt very visible, and they needed to hide themselves to not get into trouble.”

People interviewed also said their interactions with law enforcement perpetuated their homelessness.

“If they get their car taken away and that was the only place they stayed, it is going to be harder to get out of homelessness,” he said.



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