The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Police chiefs and advocates for the homeless agree: Housing, not handcuffs, is the right way to deal with poverty

The tent of a person experiencing homelessness in Woodbridge in 2018. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

John Dixon, a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, is a former police chief of the Petersburg (Va.) Police Department and ex-Marine. Eric Tars is legal director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

In an era of bad news, here’s a rare piece of good: The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty recently helped strike down an antiquated Virginia law allowing police to arrest and imprison people deemed “habitual drunkards.” The legislature and administration should now use the opportunity to implement modern solutions to homelessness. We know the best outcomes are reached not through criminalization and imprisonment but through supportive systems that prevent crime.

The old law allowed the state courts to declare a person a “habitual drunkard,” making it a crime for him or her to merely possess alcohol. But because people experiencing homelessness live their entire lives in public view, while housed people can drink in private, the law was almost exclusively enforced on homeless people.

It is cruel and unusual to punish someone for their status of being a homeless alcoholic, but it is also backward public policy. The purpose of law enforcement is to prevent crime, but because Virginia has inadequate treatment and housing options for these individuals, enforcing these laws only makes matters worse. The stress of experiencing homelessness and being under constant threat of arrest promoted substance use and abuse — and criminalizing substance abuse created arrest records, fines, fees and the trauma of jail time. All of these things made it harder for people to get their lives back on track.

In addition, police were distracted from responding to actual crimes by having to enforce these laws. Because warehousing someone in jail or sending him or her to the emergency room is much more expensive than providing housing and treatment, the burden of enforcement falls heavily on taxpayers.

Numerous studies have shown that alternative programs are more effective — and cost-effective — at reducing both homelessness and substance abuse. Housing-first models, such as 1811 Eastlake in Seattle, focus on providing housing and support systems to homeless people with chronic substance-use disorders. Providing housing and services rather than putting them in jail actually eases their addiction, ensures they have the tools to break the cycle of homelessness and has saved Seattle millions in law enforcement and emergency room costs. If Virginia could replicate this sort of program at a scale appropriate to the needs of our communities, it could meet the goals of the habitual drunkard law in eliminating the negative impacts of public alcoholism from public spaces — at a lower cost and with higher rates of success.

Alternative programs also allow police to stop spending time arresting unsheltered people for conduct that would be legal if they were inside a home and instead focus their time on real public-safety concerns. Police can leave the treatment of people in crisis to social workers, psychologists and medical personnel rather than taking on tasks they are neither trained nor equipped to handle.

Whether viewed from a moral, legal or fiscal policy angle, housing, not handcuffs, is the right way to deal with chronic homelessness and alcoholism. We stand ready to work with the state legislature, law enforcement and other housing and public health advocates to help implement proven alternatives that promote public-safety outcomes for homeless individuals and the communities in which they live.