Creating Meaningful Alternatives to Criminalization in Our Communities

Sergeant Richard Schnell is retiring from the San Diego Police Department after 35 years of service, the last 15 of which he has spent helping create and lead the Department’s partnerships for the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), an interdisciplinary team of police officers and County social workers and psychiatric clinicians. He also leads the Serial Inebriate Program (SIP), which provides housing and treatment alternatives for people who are struggling with addiction and are facing court sentences.

In March, I had the privilege of going on a ride-along in the HOT van with Sergeant Schnell and his partner, Officer John Liening. I’ve known Sergeant Schnell and Officer Liening for about 10 years or more. The HOT and SIP teams are profiled in USICH’s publication Searching Out Solutions, and they have provided training to police departments in many other parts of the country. But this was my first chance to witness, in person, their daily efforts to create meaningful alternatives to criminalization for the vulnerable men and women who are living unsheltered on the streets of my hometown, San Diego.

As we drove and made frequent stops throughout downtown San Diego, it was clear that these officers are truly the first line of response to issues of homelessness. They are the people business owners, social service agencies, and housing providers turn to when they have concerns, and, most importantly, the people that individuals living on the streets know to come to for help and information about housing and services. 

Throughout the afternoon I spent with them, the conspicuous black van of the HOT Team repeatedly served as a beacon for men and women asking for guidance about how they could get off the streets and on a path toward housing. All of these community members know that their needs, concerns, and fears will receive a listening ear and an equally respectful response.

In a free-wheeling conversation that day, Sergeant Schnell, Officer Liening, and County Human Services Specialist Evan Paymard were able to share recent success stories with me. One was about a 27 year old man with substance use issues that they helped from the sidewalks around the new public library into shelter and treatment. They also assured the young man that his dog would be cared for and they could be reunited in the future.

Another story was that of a senior citizen who had been evicted from an SRO and was living on the streets. The HOT Team was able to help him into a shelter and then into supportive housing operated by Senior Community Centers.

The Team also shared the challenges and frustrations the face, including the disjointed network of services and housing programs, the lack of systems for prioritizing the people they know are the most vulnerable, and the inconsistent local leadership and will to make progress.

I’ve reflected a great deal on that afternoon and our conversation, especially while wrestling with what their experience tell me about what it takes to create real, meaningful alternatives to criminalization in our communities. Sergeant Schnell and Officer Liening and other members of the San Diego Police Department are working hard to create real, lasting solutions to homelessness in San Diego and to not resort to enforcement measures that only provide temporary, fleeting answers. They know that they can’t create the entire solution on their own. Their dedication and efforts deserve to be incorporated into a more purposeful, more coordinated, and more outcomes-focused system for ending homelessness and linking people to appropriate and stable permanent housing opportunities than is currently found in many communities.  The whole system must provide the alternatives to criminalization, not only law enforcement, including:

  • Consistent, comprehensive, and skilled outreach and engagement. This engagement should include law enforcement, service providers, and other city and county staff in order to engage people experiencing unsheltered homelessness and build trusting relationships, which are the basis for identifying and providing the best and most appropriate housing and services options to each individual and family. 
  • Immediately-available interim housing opportunities with clear paths to permanent housing. When an individual or family asks for assistance to come inside, we should be able to provide that opportunity as quickly as it is available. 
  • A systems-orientation across all agencies and programs. Outreach workers and people seeking help should not have to navigate a confusing and complicated array of program criteria, eligibility requirements, and screening processes to figure out what housing opportunities are available. We need systems that respond to requests for help with consistent, solutions-focused actions, regardless of where that request is made.
  • Coordinate approaches for assessing needs and prioritizing access to housing and resources. People who are most vulnerable and most in need of intensive housing and services interventions (such as permanent supportive housing) should get the quickest possible access to those interventions. They should not be left waiting in line behind people who could be better served by less intensive and expensive housing opportunities. 
  • Focus on housing first strategies and practices. Removing unnecessary obstacles, requirements, and expectations to housing and emphasizing strategies that can help people to access an appropriate and stable housing opportunity as quickly as possible is critical. The effectiveness of housing first strategies has been proven again and again. People with the lived experience of homelessness know that housing is the answer to their challenges.
  • Sustaining the leadership and will it takes to create lasting solutions. Above all else, we’ve learned that person-centered community engagement must be a centerpiece in any effort: whether engaged as people who have experienced homelessness, outreach workers, law enforcement, volunteers, funders, service providers, business leaders, or members of a faith group, when the larger community is informed and working together and has clear leadership people get connected to safe, stable housing and end their homelessness.  

When the HOT Team dropped me off early that evening, Sergeant Schnell was off to speak to a concerned community group. The next day, Officer Liening would be picking up from jail two people who were electing to enter the SIP program and taking them to their new medical homes and housing opportunities.

April 8 was declared Sergeant Schnell Day in the City of San Diego. I am guessing they find this well-deserved attention both kind and perhaps a touch embarrassing, and that they would prefer that we all remain focused instead on assuring that the alternatives to criminalization that they’ve created are embedded within stronger, better, more effective systems for ending homelessness.