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Reducing Homeless-Related Crime

Reducing Homeless-Related Crime

University of Pennsylvania

Synopsis: A program focused solely on addressing crimes associated with homelessness saw minimal reductions in crime rates in the treatment area, as well as surrounding areas.


Community Need

Crimes, such as nuisance crimes, are often associated with homeless encampments, as these provide clusters of potential crime victims and perpetrators. Generally speaking, police initiatives alone cannot solve the issue of homelessness in an area. However, there is potential for police programs to reduce crime associated these encampments. In this study, an area of Los Angeles nicknamed “Skid Row,” was the location of multiple homeless encampments and a crime problem that included “open-air drug markets, prostitution, robbery gangs, and vandalism.” Homeless individuals were often targeted as victims of these more significant crimes.


LAPD launched an initiative, the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI) to combat crime in areas like Skid Row. The Main Street Pilot Project (MSPP) was the pilot test for SCI. The SCI took an approach along the lines of the Broken Windows Theory, including seeking a reduction in the homeless encampments through fines and citations.


Primary Research Question(S)

  1. Will a reduction in the concentration of homeless individuals lead to a reduction in nuisance crimes?
  2. Will a reduction occur for other types of crimes, such as violent and property?
  3. Will the crimes be displaced into adjoining precincts?

Research Design

The area targeted by SCI and MSPP was the Central Division. Data was collected for this area, as well as the four surrounding divisions, none of which were undergoing official crime prevention initiatives at the same time. Data on nuisance, violent, and property crimes was collected spanning 419 weeks, between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2007. MSPP began officially on week 300, however the researchers chose to mark the beginning of MSPP at week 294 as news of the upcoming project was already being disseminated among the homeless population and the media. The SCI began on week 351. During these times periods, police presence was increased and homeless encampments were dispersed.


The most significant limitation that the researchers cite is the extent of cofounding effects from other practices which the researchers may not have been aware of. For example, there is a possibility that the perceived success of the interventions in the Central Division may have inspired a more aggressive approach to homeless encampments by officers assigned to the other divisions.


Research Findings

Analysis indicated that after the implementation of SCI, nuisance, violent, and property crimes were reduced to 70%, 84%, 65% (respectively) the levels prior to the interventions in the Central Division. Additional analysis indicated that the benefits of the intervention may have diffused to the surrounding divisions. Instead of rising rates due to crime displacements, surrounding divisions saw a slight reduction in crime and no new encampments.

Main Implications

The interventions produced a small reduction in crime, with no apparent displacement. Rather, it appeared that the interventions had a positive spillover effect in surrounding areas. However, researchers note that the reductions were minimal, indicating that the homeless encampment may not have been the primary driver in the area’s crime rate. It is possible that this effect may only be for the short term, unless necessary services are provided to homeless individuals. Neither of the interventions focused on reducing homelessness, merely a possible consequence of homelessness – crime. With this in mind, researchers note that it would be prudent to consider the costs of implementing similar interventions before moving ahead due to the small reduction, in both size and length, in crime.


Berk, R., & MacDonald, J. (2010). Policing the homeless: An evaluation of efforts to reduce homeless‐related crime. Criminology & Public Policy, 9(4), 813-840.