With homeless numbers so prevalent in the U.S., more and more interactions between transient populations and security officers at the public and private-sector facilities they protect have the capacity to turn violent. Security officers need to pay attention to the behavioral, legal, and procedural issues to deal with this potentially high-risk population.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, on any given night in America, there are just over 553,000 people experiencing homelessness. Some of these people are woman and children, who tend to be less confrontational than men who are living on the streets. This population suffers from a collection of issues that make it difficult for them to change their situation, including mental illness, poor social and coping skills, serious medical problems, and substance abuse. Some studies suggest nearly 80% of homeless people are addicted to street drugs or alcohol, or both. As such, this makes them potentially erratic, threatening, and even dangerous.
Security officers usually encounter homeless people inside or along the perimeter of their posts, including public buildings, like libraries, courthouses, and service or social services centers; hospitals, mental health facilities, and substance abuse treatment clinics; malls and retail stores; and in abandoned buildings or new construction sites. Homeless advocacy groups suggest that about 80 percent of homeless people are mostly docile, nonviolent, and usually cooperative. They are used to being told to “move along,” throughout their day and after contacts with business owners, security officers, and the police. There is a smaller part, the remaining 20 percent, who can be predatory, confrontational, violent, and fight with other homeless people, people passing by, store or government employees, security officers, or even responding police. This percentage of the homeless is also more likely to steal merchandise, panhandle aggressively to the point of a near-strong-arm robbery scenario, or vandalize or damage their surroundings.
Security officers need to carefully differentiate which of these two populations they’re dealing with and be ready to call police for the illegal activities they see during these encounters. They need to remind themselves not to touch these people or their belongings, which may be all they have, and to use space and distance as they assess mental health and substance abuse concerns. Of course, not all mentally ill people are dangerous, but any street person who is a danger to himself or herself, or others, or gravely disabled, should require security officers to call police. And while some substance abusers can control their behavior while under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or both, many cannot, and this should require a police call as well.
Security officers can benefit by being assertively polite, vigilant, consistent, and patient with the homeless people they encounter on their rounds. This includes noting all interactions with the homeless person(s) in daily logs, incident reports, and “pass-down” activities.