How UNLV Police Established Its Homeless Outreach Unit
The primary mission of the unit is to connect both the student and non-student homeless population with available resources in surrounding communities.
For many who work in public safety, such as nurses, police officers and emergency managers, the desire to help people started at a young age. Sergeant Antonia “Toni” Summerlin is one of those people.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve always wanted to help feed homeless people. I remember being a kid and riding in the car and going, ‘Mom, there’s that person on the side of the road, we’ve got to feed them,'” Toni recalls in an interview with Campus Safety. “And my mom would be like, ‘We’ll go get a burger and bring it back to them.’ And it started for me at that age, wanting to help people. That’s one of the reasons I got into law enforcement.”
Toni is currently serving as a sergeant and training coordinator for University Police Services, which covers four college campuses: the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College and Desert Research Institute. And not surprising to those closest to her, she also helped found the department’s homeless outreach unit in June 2019 with guidance from Associate Vice President and Director Adam Garcia, a 2020 Campus Safety Director of the Year finalist.
The unit was created to support both students who are homeless and the non-student homeless population whom campus police have become friendly with through community policing. All four campuses are located in Clark County, which is second in the nation in under-25 homelessness, according to UNLV.com.
Both student and non-student homelessness have grown significantly in recent years, in large part due to the economy. Students are struggling to afford housing as they also pay for tuition, textbooks, food, and transportation, among other things. Some of the non-student homeless population are in their current situation due to the ever-increasing cost of living, Toni says.
“Families used to be 3, 4, 5, 6 kids and could live off a single income home. And now people are struggling with just one or two children. And it’s not only individuals we encounter. We interact with families, too,” she elaborates. “We see families living out of their cars. We see families that are in the shelters, a lot of times split up because the men and women can’t sleep together.”
For much of the non-student homeless population, the campuses are viewed as safe havens — places they can go to simply get out of the elements, grab a bite to eat, or use the restrooms to change.
“Since we’re university police officers, we are community-based police officers. We practice community-oriented policing. These people, regardless of whether they are students or not, are part of our community,” Toni says. “So we kind of needed to adjust our thought process of how we see homeless individuals. Homelessness is just a word. It’s not the description of that individual person — it’s just the situation they are currently in.”
The Importance of Getting Buy-in from Stakeholders
The primary goal of the unit is to connect the homeless population with resources that they either don’t realize are available or are struggling to access. The second is to change the way some of the population may view law enforcement.
“It’s about, ‘How can we better aid them in either getting those resources or getting them to the right people? The right department if they’re a student?'” Toni says. “Not, ‘What can we do to get them out of here?’ but ‘What can we do to help make their lives better?'”
Toni and her former partner, Bree Torrey, went into the homeless community to find out what resources would help improve their lives. They then created partnerships with different groups in Clark County and the Las Vegas Valley that could help provide these resources — ones that the police department acknowledges they cannot provide themselves.
All pertinent information, including what it is the partners provide (food, shelter, Medicaid, etc.), hours of operation, address and phone number, were collected and assembled to create an alternative resource card that can be easily distributed to individuals in need.
Although Toni leads the unit, there is an expectation that all officers know what to do when they converse with homeless individuals. In her experience being in the community, both on- and off-duty, Toni says for many homeless individuals looking for help, they need to be reached “right then and there” when they are willing to accept resources, which is why all officers have the resource cards on hand.
“My fear has always been if I can’t reach somebody today, when will I see this person again? I don’t want to make someone wait for the help they might need right away,” she emphasizes. “What happens if I’m on vacation or one of my kiddos is sick?”
While cooperation from all police officers is crucial to successful homeless outreach, the program only works if other campus stakeholders are on board as well. That is why Toni and Bree also took the time to go to all department heads across the four campuses to discuss homelessness and what the unit is doing in the surrounding communities. They also dropped off stacks of resource cards.
“You actually need to get out there and talk to these different departments and get them to buy-in and support what it is the police department is doing,” she says. “Because if you can get buy-in from the department heads and you get the buy-in from the people that actually interact with these individuals on a daily basis, you can’t buy that anywhere. That’s priceless because in turn, now they are looking at homelessness differently. Now they’re actually getting their wheels spinning like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think of that. There are homeless students, faculty and staff.’ Maybe it’s the person who sits next to you in the cubical.”
The unit has also taken the opportunity to reach out to other campuses that have implemented or are implementing similar programs. They discuss what is and isn’t working for them and learn from each other.
In the ten months since the unit’s inception, Toni says the biggest change she has noticed is that the homeless population knows them and recognizes that they aren’t there to “bust their chops.”
“Our first goal in contacting people isn’t to give them a trespassing charge or to arrest them. Our first goal in coming in contact with them is to provide them with the resources that they need,” she says.
Summerlin acknowledges there is no real fix for homelessness, in part because it doesn’t only affect one particular population. Some are homeless due to financial circumstances while others are homeless due to mental health, trauma, or addiction. Although there may be no real fix, there are always things that can be done to help improve it.
“If it’s just me helping one person at a time, that’s what we’re going to do.”