Abstract: Experiences with Law Enforcement Among Young Adults Experiencing Homelessness (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Experiences with Law Enforcement Among Young Adults Experiencing Homelessness

Friday, January 13, 2023
South Mountain, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Juan Barthelemy, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Sarah Narendorf, PhD, Associate Professor of Social Work and Associate Dean of Research and Faculty Development, University of Houston, TX
Aly Jacobs, M.Ed, Student, University of Houston
Devonte Hill, Research Assistant, University of Houston
Purpose: Over 3.5 million young adults experience homelessness (YAEH) or unstable housing each year in the United States (Morton et al., 2018). Surviving while on the streets can lead young people into criminalized behaviors such as trade sex, substance use, and stealing, which bring them into contact with law enforcement (LE) (McCandless, 2018). Additionally, YAEH are often victims of crime while homeless (Bender et al., 2014). Prior studies have examined the experiences of YAEH with LE but have not examined how LE could work to understand homeless youth. This study provides additional information about the experiences of YAEH with LE prior to and during unstable housing and sheds light on potential intervention points.

Methods: We conducted 4 focus groups at a drop in center for YAEH in Houston (n=33). Study questions were developed by young adults with lived expertise of homelessness who were members of the research team. Focus groups were co-facilitated by an academic researcher and a YAEH co-researcher following a semi-structured interview guide. Questions asked about experiences that led to homelessness, experience with law enforcement, and potential solutions to improve experiences. Transcripts were reviewed by a team of four coders who used an open coding process to create a codebook that was iteratively refined. Coded passages were discussed and organized into themes for final results.

Results: Participants reported extensive experiences with LE prior to and during their experiences with homelessness across themes. Pathways to homelessness included LE interactions in conjunction with multiple contributing factors including domestic violence, child protection and psychiatric hospitalization. Circumstances related to homelessness also brought LE interactions due to survival behaviors such as trespassing, and laws that criminalize homelessness (“laying on the sidewalk” FG2). Stories revealed situations where police were called to enforce the law resulting in interactions young people experienced as harassment. Police came in response to citizen complaints, routine patrols where participants felt they were targeted, and when young people were engaged in criminal behavior. Participants reported they would not call LE when victimized due to being perceived themselves as the problem (“you probably deserved it” FG1) as well as past negative experiences and a culture of avoiding police. Participants noted racial dynamics “...they're supposed to be protecting us, and instead they’re beating and killing us.” FG2. Many participants noted feelings of helplessness about solutions, though some suggested specialized training.

Discussion: Our analysis revealed the pervasiveness of police within the lives of YAEH before and during homelessness. And, while victimization experiences are common while homeless, YAEH were not comfortable calling the police for protection. Results revealed structural problems that participants were unable to transcend. Police were doing their jobs and young people were trying to survive, leading to interactions with no benefit to either side. Findings call for a re-thinking of our approach to enforcing laws that are violated during homelessness to address root causes rather than punish. Immediate approaches could include training and pairing police responses with supportive services. Longer-term solutions should involve thinking beyond police as the response system.