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Police Response to Homelessness: A Partnership for Comprehensive Compassion

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mark Kling & Linda-Marie Sundstrom
February 17, 2021

The City of Rialto is a diverse city in Southern California with a population of 108,000 residents. In 2019, Rialto documented 133 homeless individuals living in the city during their annual point in time count. During the same period, the Rialto Police Department received 1,103 calls for service associated with transient matters from citizens and businesses.

The Police Department determined that they could not “enforce” their way out of the situation. By 2020, the homeless population increased by more than 15%, and nearly 70% of those individuals had been homeless for more than a year. Officers working with the homeless population found they were faced with limited resources to help individuals find long-term solutions. Additionally, officers had limited time to conduct much-needed ongoing supportive services necessary to address the growing homelessness situation.

Homeless Services in a Silo

Numerous government agencies, as well as local nonprofit organizations, can help individuals with homelessness. Police Departments and Code Enforcement can issue citations, Public Works can assist with cleaning up illegal encampments, nonprofit groups can provide outreach services, and County Behavioral Health Departments can assist homeless individuals who are suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues. But traditionally, these departments and agencies each work in a silo, which results in agency resources slipping through the proverbial cracks, while homelessness continues to grow.

The Goal of a Partnership for Comprehensive Compassion

The Rialto Police Department determined they needed a new framework to address overall quality of life issues in the city. They identified available resources and created a partnership of four organizations to address issues for homeless individuals, citizens and local businesses. The Police Department became the lead agency, and now coordinates with the city’s Public Works department, Code Enforcement, County Behavioral Health and a local nonprofit organization. As a team, these groups identify strategies to assist individuals who are homeless, while maintaining a quality-of-life expectation for citizens and businesses in the community. The role of each partner is as follows:

Rialto Police Department: In 2020, the Police Department obtained a three-year federal funding grant for three officers in the Community Outreach Bureau. These officers were selected for their skills in law enforcement and for their compassion and humility. The officers formed the homelessness Quality of Life Taskforce. They received special training and now work closely with partner agencies to facilitate available resources and services. Following the conclusion of the grant, the Police Department is committed to retaining all officer positions through a council-approved Community Facilities District (CFD) funds. The funds are earmarked for public safety. The CFD is a property assessment for all new housing development that affects city services. Each parcel within a CFD is assessed an annual tax of approximately $300 to off-set the additional demands for city services. This fee is not a Mello Roos Tax, because there is no sunset date on the assessment. The lion’s share of the CFD is restricted to the police department.

Social Work Action Group (SWAG): SWAG is a local nonprofit organization that aids those who are homeless. SWAG’s services are paid by the Rialto Police Department using California’s new Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) funds. Rialto Police will seek additional funding in the coming years to ensure SWAG’s services continue. SWAG assists individuals with: street outreach services; housing navigation, housing subsidies, rental agreements, rental assistance, education on alternatives to living on the streets, and ongoing case management supportive services.

Rialto Public Works and Code Enforcement: Public Works and Code Enforcement are part of the Quality of Life Taskforce for the city. These departments work alongside Rialto Police with the removal of illegal encampments, abandoned vehicles and trash associated with the homeless population. These services are coordinated with other partner members. The agencies are paid for by the City of Rialto, general fund.

County Behavioral Health Specialists: In 2020, nearly 90% of homeless individuals in the City of Rialto were diagnosed with mental health issues. Many of those individuals were suffering from substance abuse and many also had physical disabilities. The Rialto Police Department allocated office space for two full-time County Behavioral Health Specialists, who work directly with police officers. San Bernardino County funds the positions. The specialists assist individuals who are homeless facing compounding issues related to mental health.

The Sum is Greater Than the Whole

Each member of the team provides services which make up a piece of the puzzle, but now that everything is being coordinated through the Police Department, and the solutions are no longer delivered in a silo. Solutions are now multifaceted and include outreach, case management, mental health services, clean-up tasks, along with citations and enforcement. All members of the team not only have immediate access to other team members, but can also broaden their own skills. By Rialto Police taking the lead, they serve as a central clearinghouse for calls-for-service, and successful coordination of partners to address the concerns.

The synergy between the partners is making amazing strides to reduce homelessness. The City of Rialto is a model for agencies to begin thinking about the solutions for homelessness through the lens of a comprehensive compassionate solution.


 Dr. Mark Kling has been in law enforcement for 34 years, 13 as police chief. He has taught both Public Administration and Criminal Justice courses for the past 20 years. He is currently the Criminal Justice Program Director for California Baptist University and came out of retirement to transition the Rialto Police Department to new innovative executive leadership. Email: [email protected] / [email protected]

 Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President. She worked for two decades in local government, and has taught in Masters of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades. She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Email: [email protected]

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