March 30, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at


The Impact of COVID-19 on Persons Experiencing Homelessness

In today’s COVID-19 Daily Report, we focus on changes in the police response to homelessness resulting from the pandemic.

Existing Police Homeless Outreach Teams are stepping up efforts to reaching out to persons experiencing homelessness, and generally aim to get them into shelters.

“We have a program in San Francisco called the Healthy Streets Operation Center, which partners police with social workers, our Department of Homelessness, and our Department of Public Works,” said San Francisco Assistant Police Chief Michael Redmond. “We transitioned that group into a COVID-19 task force under our emergency operations center. They are doing a lot of outreach within the homeless community about health code violations within the encampments, especially around social distancing and cleanliness.”

San Diego Assistant Police Chief Paul Conley reports, “We had a pretty progressive approach to homelessness prior to COVID, with a whole division of about 80 officers addressing homelessness issues.”

"Tempe has placed portable hand washing stations near where homeless persons congregate," Tempe Chief Sylvia Moir told PERF. "We have also teamed with our Homeless Outreach Program (HOPE TEAM) to distribute information on COVID-19 and measures to safeguard oneself."

In Seattle, “with schools shut down, we’ve moved all of our school resource officers over to the homeless navigation team,” Seattle Assistant Police Chief Adrian Diaz told PERF.


Cities are creating more shelter space, because people in existing shelters must be “spread out” with greater space to maintain social distancing.

“We’re trying to ‘deintensify’ our shelter space to create social distancing,” said Seattle Assistant Chief Diaz. “With the King County government, we opened our exhibition hall to shelter people, adding 709 beds. We’ve added 432 beds specifically for isolation and quarantine, and we have 612 beds for recovery as people come out of isolation and quarantine. We’re also using our community centers for extra beds.”

In San Diego, Assistant Chief Conley said, “Our city and regional task force on homelessness is opening up our convention center to house our unsheltered homeless population on cots. Once it’s open, we’ll send officers and service providers out to homeless encampments to offer up that space. It seems counterintuitive to bring so many people together in the convention center at a time when we’re trying to isolate everyone. Initially they were considering opening up a smaller section of the convention center, but they’ve decided to open up the entire space to provide more room for social distancing. They’ll have separate sections that are isolated from each other, there will be at least six feet between each cot, and they’ll take steps to try to keep people apart while eating and in the bathrooms.”

Long Beach, CA Police Chief Robert Luna reported similar issues. “Our shelter capacity has been reduced to accommodate social distancing, so our city is creating more shelters at recreation centers,” he said.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore provided this account of the situation in Los Angeles:

In Los Angeles, there are more than 30,000 unsheltered individuals on any given night. We developed a mass sheltering plan, expecting that we might need it for earthquakes.

Part of that plan is to make use of 42 recreation centers across the city. We identified 13 centers that are ADA-compliant and have showers and kitchens where we could support our unsheltered population. We are using those facilities to provide people with cover and a temperature-controlled environment where they can get a shower and be looked after.

The people going into those shelters were identified by our county outreach workers, and we gave priority to those at greatest risk – people who were 65 or older, with compromised immune systems, or other types of underlying illnesses.

We’re using our bus system to collect people who are at-risk and would like shelter, and bring them to the rec centers.

We have two officers at every shelter and two officers accompanying the pickup bus. Those officers have personal protective equipment of goggles, masks, and gloves, and they try to maintain a six-foot distance from everyone, which is easier at the rec center than during the bus transport.

Because health professionals are not available for this operation, we’ve been using police officers to ask people questions about whether they have any symptoms and, if they don’t have symptoms, to take their temperature. If they have symptoms or a temperature of 100.4 degrees or above, we don’t transport them to the shelter. We explained to our union and Board of Police Commissioners that it was the only way we were going to be able to get asymptomatic people into shelters.

The guidance we’re getting from our public health officials is that it’s safer for people to be in a rec center at a six-foot distance from others than to be outside in an encampment. The county and state are pursuing hotel and motel rooms to try to keep people apart entirely. Until we have that option, bringing people into a rec center is better than leaving them in an encampment.


Santa Cruz, CA is using hotels to house persons experiencing homelessness, but it’s not an ideal solution.

In northern California, Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills described his city’s experience with contracting for hotel rooms for homeless persons:

We had a couple entrenched encampments in our downtown areas, where people were living right on top of one another, and it was aggravated by a homeless advocacy group that was gathering 100 to 200 people at a time to feed them, and nobody was social distancing.

We decided that wasn’t going to work, so we declared one of the camps was violating a health order and moved everybody into a city-owned lot where we had controlled spacing as well as bathrooms and hand-washing stations.

We used that space to triage them to get them into hotels. The city took money from the general fund to contract with a couple hotels. The county is supposed to do that with state and federal funding, but our county can be a little slow to get things done, and we needed to move right away.

So we got all of those folks into hotels. But some are still leaving their hotels and doing the things they would usually do, rather than socially isolating. And we’ve had complaints that homeless individuals have trashed some of the rooms.

The county is looking for other places to house people, like civic facilities or private facilities. But that’s going to take them some time to work out. You’d think it’d be easier in a smaller city, but unfortunately, it’s not.

In southern California, Riverside County has obtained 340 hotel and motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, Indio Police Chief Mike Washburn said.

“But right now, we don’t really need them in Indio,” Chief Washburn said. “Our shelters, which are operated by faith-based NGOs, are not full. The shelters have added some extra precautions, including taking everyone’s temperature before they enter the building.”


Shortages of equipment are a problem.

“We don’t have enough personal protective equipment for everyone on our usual multidisciplinary homeless outreach teams,” said Long Beach Chief Luna. “Police and fire have PPE, but other partners, like public works and health outreach workers, can’t get them. I think that will be resolved once more equipment becomes available.”


Some agencies are limiting the role of patrol officers on homelessness, to guard their health.

In San Francisco, “We want our homelessness officers to handle these issues rather than our patrol officers in the districts,” Assistant Chief Redmond said. “We need to reduce our patrol officers contacts, because if one of them is exposed, it could impact the entire district station.”

In Long Beach, “I’ve insisted that security at the shelters be handled by private security companies hired through the health department, because I don’t want to overburden our police resources,” Chief Luna said.

“We’re asking people to use external private security companies at shelters, not providing it ourselves,” said Seattle Assistant Chief Diaz. “We can’t risk losing a whole watch or precinct because someone was exposed while providing security. We need everyone available to handle 911 calls.”

And police generally are seeking voluntary compliance, not enforcement. “We’re really leaning on education to try to prevent the spread, and we haven’t really done much enforcement yet,” said San Francisco Assistant Chief Redmond.


Many people experiencing homelessness resist services, and that is continuing.

People experiencing homelessness are traditionally resistant to services, and police officials told PERF that COVID-19 hasn’t changed that.

“Usually about 70% of our homeless population are resistant to services, and that number is staying steady during this outbreak,” said Long Beach Chief Luna. “We are putting a lot of effort into reaching out to people, but we’re still facing the same obstacles we usually do with this segment of the community.”

“If homeless persons aren’t willing to take services, we prefer to keep them where they are, rather than move them out,” said Seattle Assistant Chief Diaz. “We’re providing hygiene kits that include paper towels, soap, water, etc. We’ve distributed over 1,000 of those kits.”

“We have a very robust homeless outreach team, but most people decline our services, because they’re worried about getting the virus if they move to a shelter,” said Miami Beach, FL Chief Rick Clements.


Business closings are changing patterns of where homeless persons spend their time.

For people experiencing homelessness, there are secondary consequences of businesses closing down. In some cases, now-vacated business and entertainment areas are attracting more homeless people setting up camps. In other cases, homeless individuals who can no longer solicit donations in empty business districts are fanning out to other neighborhoods.

“Our homeless population has quickly moved into the areas where our entertainment businesses have shut down,” said Long Beach Chief Luna. But with the closing of businesses, police in Indio, CA are receiving fewer complaints about homeless persons soliciting donations. “We’re getting fewer calls related to homelessness, because there isn’t really any place for them to ask strangers for assistance,” said Indio Chief Mike Washburn.

“We’re shutting down the entertainment-based commercial parts of our city, which is where our homeless population tended to congregate,” Miami Beach Chief Clements said. “They used to be able to go into those businesses and get something to sustain themselves. Now they’re moving to other parts of the city and creating issues for us there. They’re going into essential businesses that remain open and committing thefts, which lead to confrontations, which lead to our officers being called to the scene.”


Some agencies report an uptick in convenience store thefts.

Some chiefs are seeing an uptick in thefts and robberies by increasingly desperate people who are targeting convenience stores and other places that remain open. Some agencies are also noticing an increase in auto burglaries. But generally, most agencies are reporting lower overall crime rates.




The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.

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