OUR POSITION: Homeless outreach is a win-win for both police and the community.

Ever wonder how much a homeless person costs you?

Taking into account the use of crisis services like hospitals, rehab centers, psychiatric facilities, emergency rooms and jails, a single chronically homeless individual costs the public at least $30,000 a year.

But that cost falls to about $12,000 if the person is given permanent housing, according to Daniel McDonald, the Tampa Police Department’s homeless liaison officer.

At a law enforcement conference in 2018, McDonald advocated that all local law enforcement agencies should have their own homeless outreach team, according to Police One, an online news and training resource for police.

“The police are called regardless, so let’s help navigate folks through a rigid, complex system,” McDonald said. “We should use data to see homeless hot spots just as we would crime hot spots so we develop the appropriate response.”

Homeless outreach isn’t just about handing out food, water and blankets. It’s getting people the kind of help that transitions them off the streets and into self-sufficiency.

Sun reporter Craig Garrett recently profiled Erin Finnegan, a North Port Community Policing officer who is the city’s liaison to the homeless population.

Finnegan, a former school teacher, finds the homeless wherever they are — camps, libraries, schools — and tries to connect them with assistance. That can mean churches, veterans groups, and nonprofits that treat mental health and substance abuse.

The Sarasota Police Department has a homeless outreach team consisting of a sergeant, four officers and two civilian case managers. Formed in 2014, the team is credited with reducing the city’s homeless population by 60% in just three years.

In Charlotte County, both the Sheriff’s Office and the Punta Gorda Police Department are committed to getting their officers certified in Crisis Intervention Training, according to Angela Hogan, CEO of the Gulf Coast Partnership, the county’s lead agency on ending homelessness. As of a September Sun report, more than 70% of local officers had received this specialized training, which has many components but includes techniques to de-escalate situations involving people with mental health issues.

Homelessness is a relatively new concept in Western society. A National Academy of Sciences report traces it to the 1870s, when the prevalence of railroads and booming industrialization gave Americans a new sense of mobility. This led to itinerant “tramps” who would “ride the rails” in search of work.

But these wandering souls were often stigmatized as vagabonds and drifters, and the typical response to homelessness for a long time was “Get a job.”

This didn’t work. We’ve come to realize that unemployment is just one underlying cause of homelessness, and that lack of affordable housing, mental health and addiction are bigger factors.

Neither did the endless cycle of jail-release-repeat address the problem.

Florida lawmakers in recent years have made significant cuts to the kinds of programs that would help alleviate homelessness. The state this year ranked last in the country for per-capita spending on mental health and substance abuse.

If the state is falling short, we must lobby our representatives to do better. Without their help, it’s up to communities to pick up the slack.

The good news is, local communities are addressing the need, and our police departments have become crucial to that effort.

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