What Happens When Social Workers Handle Homelessness Instead of the Police?

Social workers help homeless families

Social workers and crisis counselors are better equipped than police to effectively manage homelessness by offering compassionate, non-violent support.

Invisible People Exclusive Interview With Mobile Crisis Team Serving Philadelphia

It’s 1 am in Kensington, Philadelphia. A homeless youth walks aimlessly along the dark corridors. Through their eyes, the world is a harsh and dangerous place full of empty promises and misunderstandings.

Living life in crisis mode is only exacerbated when the police are called on homeless people. Any contact with law enforcement officials has the potential to turn into a violent altercation, even, albeit particularly, for nonviolent offenders like Philly’s unhoused youth.

According to the 2023 Police Violence Report, this past calendar year was the bloodiest one on record for police murders. The vast majority of people murdered by police were those suspected of nonviolent offenses or people who did not commit a crime at all. It is for this reason that housing advocates feel social workers and counselors who are trained to be more compassionate should serve as the initial line of contact for people enduring homelessness instead of police officers. But what do the people who fill those positions believe?

We recently spoke with Bruce Lockett, Brandi Spencer-Phoenix, and Dominique Riley, members of a mobile crisis team serving Philadelphia, about their interactions with homeless community members.

These are the professionals who are dispatched in the middle of the night to households in crisis, many of whom are homeless or unstably housed. They arrive unarmed, with only their degrees in social work and experience in crisis counseling to guide them. Diligently, they collaborate to diffuse situations and attempt to prevent youth homelessness through counseling and services.

The interview below gives an eye-opening glimpse into what happens when social workers and counselors handle homelessness instead of law enforcement officials.

Invisible People: Could the three of you tell us a bit about yourselves and what you do at the Crisis Center?

Dom: Sure. I’m Dominique Riley, and I work the overnight shift in mobile crisis as a counselor. I recently started working overnight, so it was kind of slow-paced. But when I was previously working during the day, we would get dispatches from the Philadelphia crisis line, and then we would either go out to the home or the school and assess individuals for mental health issues.

I typically work in the children’s sector, so I mostly assess children. Sometimes, we do get the calls forwarded from the police, so it’s kind of like a loop of people sometimes. But we get consent to either dispatch out to the home or the school and assess the individual. Then, we make a recommendation based on our findings and help assist with transportation to the crisis center or the nearest hospital.

Bruce: I’m Bruce Lockett, and I’m a mobile crisis specialist for adolescents for the Elwin company, which is a behavioral health and mental health institution in Delaware County and the Philadelphia, PA, region. I have direct experience working with the homeless population in both the drug and alcohol field and the mental health field.

Brandi: My name is Brandi Spencer-Phoenix. I’m a mental health therapist. I’ve been a mental health therapist for the last seven years. I’m currently a clinical supervisor for the mobile crisis team here at Elwyn. I do outpatient therapy for adults, and I also work at a rehab.

Through working at the rehab, I’ve had a lot of experience with members of the homeless population. And then as a crisis supervisor, I have direct and indirect experience with children and families who are homeless. Throughout the years, I’ve done family-based therapy, so I’ve done a lot of work with homeless kids, too. Throughout my career, I’ve worked with countless kids and adults who faced homelessness.

Invisible People: It looks like all three of you have a great deal of experience, both past and present, working with people facing homelessness. Do you think this makes you more versed in handling homelessness than law enforcement officials?

Dom: I can agree with that. I think sometimes police aren’t trained on the psychological aspects. But I think as a social worker or a mental health care worker, we can be more compassionate and empathetic and understand that a mental health condition is a sickness versus the police mindset, which automatically turns to action. The police are trained to act, whereas we are trained to listen and to try to solve the problem through words. 

So, for police officers, their initial reaction is, let me act, let me lock this person up or do whatever needs to be done as per my training. The counselor’s mindset is let’s talk to the individual. Let’s get an idea of what’s going on. Is this person hallucinating? Are they suicidal or homicidal? And I don’t think that the police mindset is in that way. From that standpoint, we can better serve as the initial point of contact for homeless people who are in crisis, particularly if that crisis deals with mental health. I think that bringing us in first would mean a lot less conflict and police involvement.

Bruce: I think there is a place for both police officers and crisis counselors to work in tandem with one another. Over the past 30 years or so, there’s been a transition with mental health workers working alongside law enforcement and EMS services to provide a more congealed effort into combating mental health arrests and people who are suffering from mental health disorders or mental health crises.

They’ve been trying to hire more police officers with backgrounds in psychology and maybe a mental health background, as well as criminal justice or law enforcement, for these positions. In the future, it would be beneficial to see that kind of dual degree used in real-life situations involving homelessness and mental health.

Brandi: I would like to add that crisis counselors can be instrumental even in situations where the homeless person has not been diagnosed with any mental illness. I say this because I think that mental health is still kind of socially taboo. People don’t prioritize it the way they prioritize other things like physical health or even finances.

During crisis scenarios, full wellness should be highlighted and assessed, but if a person is homeless, they don’t necessarily have all of the resources to get their mental health checked. In this way, they are very much a population whose mental health needs are being completely overlooked.

Identifying mental health issues in undiagnosed individuals is something we are trained to do, and it is something that should be done before, as Dom mentioned, taking action, such as conducting an arrest.

Invisible People: Since you enter situations of heightened stress, how important and effective are your de-escalation tactics?

Brandi: As a supervisor, I assist my team with de-escalation tactics almost daily to ensure the best possible outcomes because we deal with a lot of children who are very escalated. But not only are the children escalated, but the parents are too, because emotional regulation is not something that’s often taught.

And then we are going into these places, and we have to stabilize the kids and the parents. We do a lot of verbal de-escalation. We are hands-off and verbal while we figure out the problem first and see if we can present a solution.

If we can’t come to a solution, it is more about validation. We try showing empathy and validation because if you study psychology, it shows that people just need a sense of belonging and understanding, and also just highlighting that and making sure everybody’s voice is heard. Oftentimes, for homeless people, their voices are not heard, especially in the medical field, and even more so when it comes to police and the imbalance of the power structure.

Bruce: In answer to your question, they are very important and quite effective. Working in mental health for the last 20 years, we have had to do yearly training on this. It’s nonviolent crisis intervention training to help us navigate sensitive and stressful situations. So yes, we use it. I use it on every dispatch that I respond to because you have to read the room. As a clinician going out into the field, we don’t know what we’re walking into. We try to be briefed on every home and crisis episode we respond to, but nothing prepares you until you get there in the element.

And you have to look at the environment. You have to use your sight, your smell, and your experience in every situation. So, talking someone down from a violent episode, an extremely agitated person, and a person who has been non-compliant with their medication for the last six weeks, this person may be highly psychotic.

Using these non-physical, verbal commands, we can usually de-escalate almost any situation. We have to use our body language to help the situation and not cause the individual to become more upset. Some examples include using low vocal tones or not trying to stand fully erect at times when you have violent individuals who might perceive your stance as too aggressive.

As a larger man, I try to fix my posture in a way that makes me seem a little bit smaller and less of a target or threat. I try not to make direct eye contact with somebody who is actively psychotic. You can make eye contact with a person who is not psychotic. That is fine. But for a person who is actively psychotic, you do not want to make direct eye contact the whole time you’re speaking to this individual because they may be hearing voices, and those voices may be telling them to attack this clinician. This is part of the mental health disorder, and I have to understand it’s not their fault.

Understanding these disorders and knowing these tactics has helped us to prevent people from being arrested by police because we’re fully trained to deal with these dispatches.

Dom: I apply de-escalation every day. I have worked in the juvenile detention center as well, so sometimes just listening to youth, in particular, makes them feel a lot greater about themselves because a lot of youth are homeless and don’t have that adult figure that’s going to sit and listen to them and all they know is survival mode.

Unfortunately, for youth, it takes going into mental health facilities or youth detention centers for someone to actually sit and listen to them. Most of the time, the crimes they were committing could have been prevented if someone had just listened to them in the first place.

Invisible People: What is the most critical aspect of dealing with communities in crisis?

Bruce: The most difficult part, I believe, is the lack of public education when it comes to mental health disorders. I think you need to know what kind of community you’re serving. We serve a population that’s mostly from minority ethnic backgrounds. And in the minority community, there has always been a stigma that mental health is something that’s not talked about as often as it should be. It’s something that’s overlooked in a lot of households, and a lot of people don’t like going to the doctor and taking medication.

Over the last decade, there have been a lot of changes in educating urban communities on the importance of mental health education and receiving a mental health diagnosis. But in the homeless community, that stigma remains. A lot of unhoused people don’t even know that they have a mental health illness because they don’t want to hear the diagnosis from the doctor.

Also, I believe there needs to be a stronger emphasis on family-based therapy, and there’s not. We have adolescent children that we service, and we give counseling in therapy where their parents have not undergone therapy for things that have happened in their childhoods.

A lot of what we’re seeing is generational trauma, which is leading to a large, diverse community of tragically lost children. They wind up homeless, alone, and afraid. And what do we do but call the police on them and lock them away in the middle of the night? Our youth deserves better chances for success.

Dom: I would say being self-aware is the most important thing. Be aware of your surroundings and your safety. Knowing if the situation is dangerous before going out into it, knowing the community, knowing if it’s a high-crime area, or if a crime was just committed there is especially important. On top of that, you want to know yourself and your fight-or-flight response, and you have to know the needs of each community you’re serving.

You don’t ever want to put yourself in a position where you’re unsafe, and now you’re trapped in a hostile environment. As you mentioned, social workers should be the first point of contact, not the only point of contact that can be used. Being self-aware is knowing the difference between when it’s time to shrink down and use low vocal tones and when it’s time to call the police.

Brandi: I think, honestly, being able to connect the dots and connecting people to an effective level of care is the most important aspect of the job. For instance, making sure our recommendations are going to stick and not just become recommendations that we are telling them to look at on a piece of paper and follow through with. Being the middle person and putting in the work for them is what makes the biggest difference because if they could do these tasks by themselves, they would.

Above all, it is fully understanding the needs of the homeless people we’re serving and being sensitive to those needs. That’s the part of the job that we, as counselors, excel at.

Housing and Social Services are the Only Solution to the Homeless Crisis. Inform Your Legislators.

Crisis counselors and social workers are vital in reducing, preventing, and solving homelessness. They are trained in solutions-based therapy and are well-versed in de-escalation tactics.

Law enforcement officials are trained to respond with action to violence and are not trained in aiding our homeless neighbors. We will never succeed in arresting our way out of homelessness.

Inform your local legislators of today’s ever-burgeoning need for affordable housing and available social services.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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