Homelessness and Parks: First Steps towards Collaborative Solutions

Publication Date


During my six-month fellowship, I had the opportunity to speak with different park professionals and stakeholders, from park police to social service providers, regarding homelessness in the parks. This allowed me to examine the issue from many angles, and one thing I learned is that any approach involves many moving parts. These parts are interconnected, and if one piece, or stakeholder, is not being engaged in the most effective way, then the whole system becomes less sustainable. With this in mind, I explored innovative initiatives that parks have utilized to address homelessness.

Although actual practices differed from site to site, most approaches shared similar steps when addressing issues around homelessness. Most of these steps are possible because of internal and external collaboration that supports park professionals as they manage homeless situations in more effective ways.

The following were some of the elements that a range of parks found to be effective:

Create Internal Space for Discussion. Park professionals should create an internal dialogue across divisions directly impacted by homelessness in parks and should identify current challenges, trends, and ways of measuring progress. This often includes building space for dialogue across law enforcement, natural resource management, maintenance, community engagement, communications, and more.

Identify and Implement Park-wide Protocols. Park-wide protocols, often led by management, communicate a common set of tactics that park professionals should follow when addressing homeless park goers. These help staff understand what is expected of them and provides them with clear support on how to properly proceed, which ultimately leads to more effective and sustainable approaches.

Collaborate around Commonalities and Resources. Collaboration between different agencies serves to better utilize resources and builds strong relationships with different stakeholders. By working with other agencies, park professionals can connect homeless individuals to service providers that are equipped to provide serves where the parks cannot.

Provide Training on Homeless Interaction. Park professionals would benefit from crisis intervention training as well as instruction around the causes, effects, and services surrounding homelessness. This can create safer interactions and help park professionals feel more secure and equipped, allowing them to be a part of the solution.

Designate a Liaison. Creating a role or team trained to directly address the needs around homelessness facilitates engagement between homeless park goers and staff. Given the complexity of the issue, parks can benefit from having dedicated staff with the training and support necessary to create sustainable approaches.

Keep the Public Informed. The public should be included in discussions around homelessness in parks because their collaboration leads to better stewardship and safer park experiences for everyone. Parks should share successes as well as challenges that they face.

In the above steps, buy-in from management is critical and can facilitate innovative approaches by offering park professionals a sense of support. Creating park-wide approaches and protocols can address inefficiencies and provide much-needed guidance to frontline staff. Approaches that place parks as the connection between homeless park goers and resources can benefit all stakeholders. Although one solution does not fit all park sites, internal and external collaboration has led to safer interactions and sustainable approaches to homelessness in the parks.

Gabriela Estrada

2017 Urban Fellow