Laurie-Anne Walton was hired by the police department of Hollywood, Florida, last year to keep a watchful eye on her community.
But Walton — dressed in a light blue polo shirt and carrying a clipboard with paperwork — isn’t an officer of the law. She’s a social worker focused on curbing homelessness.
Walton and her police officer colleagues are part of a nationwide trend addressing homelessness at the local level, she told the Sun-Sentinel. More and more law enforcement bodies are combining street-level efforts with social services to help those with no stable shelter access housing.
Walton, for example, teams up with a police officer to conduct outreach; building relationships and trust with those she’s aiming to help.
“I get out there and meet people face-to-face,” Walton told the Sun-Sentinel. “When I spend time with them and get to know what their story is, they tell me no one has sat and talked to them in they can’t remember how long.”
Research suggests proactive engagement of homeless individuals — as opposed to waiting for them to access help independently — works. A 2010 study published in The Open Health Services and Policy Journal that examined findings on how outreach operates and its effectiveness concluded that “outreach improves housing and health outcomes for various subgroups of homeless persons.”
In New York City — which is currently experiencing record-high levels of homelessness — outreach conducted in part by social workers is helping to alleviate the dire problem. As the New York Daily News reported, recent engagement efforts by social workers and clinicians have helped cut the number of chronically homeless individuals staying in the city’s subway stations and trains by almost 30 percent.
“We’ve increased the placement into transitional housing tenfold,” Danielle Minelli-Pagnotta, assistant commissioner of the city’s Department of Homeless Services, told the outlet. “And we see that as a huge indication our efforts are working.”
Social workers provide a clear advantage over police officers in terms of connecting homeless people with services, according to Walton, because cops don’t have the resources to address the root causes of the problem.
The police chief that hired Walton, Frank Fernandez, agreed: A social worker can do a better job at fighting homelessness than a cop.
“I wanted an expert in that field to assist us with this chronic issue,” he told the Sun-Sentinel. “Law enforcement is not equipped for long-term resolutions. Laurie-Anne does that for us. She provides the follow through.”