Nav: Home

Public health consequences of policing homelessness

August 12, 2020

Two weeks ago, Colorado State Patrol troopers began clearing out nearly 200 residents from homeless encampments that surround the Colorado Capitol. The enforcement of city ordinances like camping bans, park curfews and obstructions of public passageways is lawful. But the increase in "tough love" and "quality of life" policing in cities around the U.S. undermine the sleeping patterns, physical safety, and mental health of people experiencing homelessness, according to a recent study from the University of Colorado Denver.

The study, done in collaboration with advocacy organization Denver Homeless Out Loud, was published in May in the Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness.

"These laws are enforced under the guise of 'tough love,' because municipalities want to push people into services," says Marisa Westbrook, doctoral student in health and behavioral sciences at CU Denver, who worked alongside Tony Robinson, PhD, associate professor of political science. "But we'd heard that this 'quality of life' policing is making sleeping on the street even more unhealthy, which is why we wanted to objectively document what those experiences looked like."

In surveys with 484 people experiencing homelessness across Denver, researchers found that 74% had been asked to "move along" by police. Forty-four percent had been ticketed or arrested after police contact for a 'quality of life' violation. These "move along" orders lead individuals to seek more hidden and isolated city locations to sleep--nearly a quarter sought out hidden river or creek beds, while another quarter chose to keep moving all night.

Without the well-lit areas of public parks or the security and resources of a group, reasons why people experiencing homelessness stay together, those who moved to avoid police contact were more than twice as likely to be physically assaulted and 39% more likely to be robbed than homeless persons who didn't move.

When police enforced camping or shelter bans, researchers found a 45% increase in the risk of weather-related health issues like frostbite, heatstroke, and dehydration.

Seventy percent report being woken often by police and 52% are constantly worried about police contact while sleeping. Those frequently woken by police sleep an average of two hours at a time and achieve less than four hours of sleep per night.

"You can imagine the impact on mental health," says Westbrook. "They're dealing with anxiety, stress, and depression, but staying in shelters is simply not an option for some people. During the pandemic, homeless shelters have had higher rates of coronavirus than outdoor encampments. Cities are clearing outside encampments, but there are not enough housing units or shelter resources for people to stay far enough apart at this time."

The situation will only get worse. Nearly 420,000 Coloradans risk evictions in the coming months, with the greatest increases beginning in August, according to the Bell Policy Center and COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. In fact, with the eviction moratorium lifted and curbed unemployment benefits, almost 20 percent of the 110 million renters nationwide are looking at homelessness.

Across Colorado, there are only 26 affordable housing units available to every 100 very low-income households, according to National Low Income Housing Coalition. For Coloradans who make less than half of the median income, they've seen affordable housing choices decrease by 75% between 2010 and 2016--one of the steepest drops in the nation.

"A lot of folks are just hanging on month after month," says Westbrook. "They're hoping they won't be evicted or they're living out of their car. In 2019, Denver voters chose to maintain the camping ban, which is one of the cruelest things we could have done for the health and wellbeing of our community."

University of Colorado Denver

Related Mental Health Articles:

Mental illness, mental health care use among police officers
A survey study of Texas police officers examines how common mental illness and mental health care use are in a large urban department.
COVID-19 outbreak and mental health
The use of online platforms to guide effective consumption of information, facilitate social support and continue mental health care delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic is discussed in this Viewpoint.
COVID-19 may have consequences for mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be adversely affecting mental health among hospitalised patients, the healthcare professionals treating them and the general population.
Mental health outcomes among health care workers during COVID-19 pandemic in Italy
Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and insomnia among health care workers in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic are reported in this observational study.
Mental ill health 'substantial health concern' among police, finds international study
Mental health issues among police officers are a 'substantial health concern,' with around 1 in 4 potentially drinking at hazardous levels and around 1 in 7 meeting the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder and depression, finds a pooled data analysis of the available international evidence, published online in Occupational & Environmental Medicine.
Examining health insurance nondiscrimination policies with mental health among gender minority individuals
A large private health insurance database was used to examine the association between between health insurance nondiscrimination policies and mental health outcomes for gender minority individuals.
Mental health care for adolescents
Researchers examined changes over time in the kinds of mental health problems for which adolescents in the United States received care and where they got that care in this survey study with findings that should be interpreted within the context of several limitations including self-reported information.
Heat takes its toll on mental health
Hot days increase the probability that an average adult in the US will report bad mental health, according to a study published March 25, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Mengyao Li of the University of Georgia, and colleagues.
Mental health of health care workers in china in hospitals with patients with COVID-19
This survey study of almost 1,300 health care workers in China at 34 hospitals equipped with fever clinics or wards for patients with COVID-19 reports on their mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress.
The Lancet Public Health: Access to identification documents reflecting gender identity may improve trans mental health
Results from a survey of over 20,000 American trans adults suggest that having access to identification documents which reflect their identified gender helps to improve their mental health and may reduce suicidal thoughts, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.
More Mental Health News and Mental Health Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Sound And Silence
Sound surrounds us, from cacophony even to silence. But depending on how we hear, the world can be a different auditory experience for each of us. This hour, TED speakers explore the science of sound. Guests on the show include NPR All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly, neuroscientist Jim Hudspeth, writer Rebecca Knill, and sound designer Dallas Taylor.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Kittens Kick The Giggly Blue Robot All Summer
With the recent passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there's been a lot of debate about how much power the Supreme Court should really have. We think of the Supreme Court justices as all-powerful beings, issuing momentous rulings from on high. But they haven't always been so, you know, supreme. On this episode, we go all the way back to the case that, in a lot of ways, started it all.  Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at