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Discouraging Loiterers by Design

​Homeless people who loiter in and around downtown businesses—such as hotels, office buildings, or shopping centers—present difficult and complex challenges for property owners and managers. Companies want customers to feel welcome and safe, but security must strike a balance between concerns about serving the customer and the rights of the homeless. Improper or aggressive handling of the homeless can result in negative media coverage, lawsuits, and even criminal charges against overzealous security officers. In crafting solutions, security directors can draw on the concepts of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED).

Following are some examples of how those principles can be applied to develop methods of discouraging homeless persons from using a site.


As with most CPTED applications, it is important to begin by assessing the property from the perspective of exterior transition zones and border definition. If, for example, a facility has poorly defined or undefined boundaries, or the composition of its sidewalks or roadways matches the civic sidewalks or roads, then homeless persons may feel that they can freely enter exterior areas to panhandle, sleep, or forage. Changes in grade, low half-walls; gateways created by pairs of lamp standards, planters, or columns; and different paving or sidewalk treatments can all be used to send out a territorial signal that may help to dissuade the homeless from coming onto the property.

Sleeping Spots

Management should try to eliminate all potential sleeping places, particularly covered ones. All exterior benches should have seat dividers, and flat exterior surfaces suitable for sleeping on, such as the tops of low walls, should be broken up by applying strips of raised material across the surface. These strips should be about 2 inches tall and should be applied about every 18 inches. This spacing allows people to sit but not to stretch out. Another alternative is to install securely fastened large river rocks or other irregularly shaped objects to eliminate level plateaus needed for sleeping.

If homeless persons sleep in plant beds, the greenery should be replaced with “hostile” vegetation such as crown of thorns, Russian olive, red barberry, or Siberian pea shrub. Plants that emit a repugnant odor, such as skunk cabbage, can be a deterrent, but they may be offensive to legitimate site users. Hostile vegetation can also help prevent use of planters as informal outdoor toilets and act as a graffiti screen for vulnerable, windowless walls.

Most landscape architects can provide a range of possible species suitable to a facility’s climate and soil conditions. It may take two to three growing seasons for hostile vegetation to become mature, however. In the meantime, patrols, monitored surveillance cameras, or other countermeasures should be used.


Another prevalent sleeping spot for the homeless is the open area often found under the stairs at the bottom of garage and building stairwells. Fencing, gating, or otherwise enclosing these areas is recommended. However, if the area is completely bricked up, an enclosed space may be created, which could trigger fire-code regulations in some jurisdictions, such as the requirement to have a door or possibly even a sprinkler head.

Washrooms accessible to the public may also present an inviting environment for homeless persons in search of sleeping quarters. To prevent this, these restrooms should either be equipped with card readers or punch-code locks.

Any exterior utility areas—such as sprinkler rooms, transformer rooms, and loading docks—should be equipped with monitored alarm contacts, and site security should attend all alarms. Wherever or whenever these areas cannot be alarmed, they should be regularly patrolled. It is also recommended that the doors to these areas be equipped with suitable protective hardware such as dead-bolt locks, strike cover-plates, and hinges with nonremovable pins.

Light and Sound

Where fire regulations or egress requirements render it impossible to use physical obstacles to make a covered area less attractive to homeless persons, consider using sound or light.

Classical music has been used to discourage loitering teenagers, however, it may have little or no effect on the adult homeless. What may work are unpleasant sounds, such as cats yowling and fighting, babies crying, or mechanic beeps and buzzes. Speakers should be mounted at least 10 feet above grade, and they should be protected by expanded metal cages.

The Calgary, Alberta, Police Service has successfully used energy-efficient low-pressure sodium (LPS) lighting to displace sex-trade workers. LPS lighting changes skin color and hue, giving prostitutes an unattractive pallor. LPS lighting can also help deter loitering because many people develop headaches after about 20 minutes of exposure. Vandal-resistant wall packs are particularly useful at producing this effect, especially when mounted only about 10 feet above grade.


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Reducing access to discarded tobacco is another control measure. Both open-top ashtrays and the total absence of ashtrays result in easy foraging of secondhand smoking materials.

To minimize this problem, sturdy, lockable canister-type ashtrays should be installed in all exterior areas used by smokers, preferably in clearly defined areas that are easily observed from inside the facility or from the street. One option is to place them adjacent to busy areas such as courier parking. Signage should encourage use of the receptacles.


Obviously, the availability of food is attractive to the homeless. Dumpsters containing food should, if possible, be kept indoors in a locked disposal area. If this is not possible, trash containers should be kept closed and locked.

It’s also recommended to put Dumpsters within view of daytime shipping and receiving (S/R) staff. Where opportunities for natural surveillance of Dumpsters are limited because of the location of the S/R office or its lack of windows, security might consider pointing exterior surveillance cameras at them, and having a monitor in the S/R staff office. If the Dumpsters have to be located where neither staff nor cameras can observe them, routine daytime and evening patrols are the best response.


At facilities such as hotels and restaurants where surplus food is routinely available, staff should not offer this food to individual homeless persons. Instead, surplus food supplies should be given to nearby homeless charities that can use them as part of a structured program for feeding the homeless. Prominent signs near Dumpsters should advise homeless persons of where the surplus food is available.

If facility management prefers a more direct approach, it should consider setting up a food distribution program in an area where, and at times when, the homeless persons are less likely to encounter normal users. For example, Osgoode Hall, a judicial body in Toronto, uses this approach to feed the homeless after normal business hours.

The security of incoming food deliveries and outgoing shipments must also be considered. One of the easiest ways to do this is to build a series of sturdy expanded metal mesh (#6 or heavier) cages. They should be bolted securely to an exterior S/R wall that can be observed from inside the building or from the street.

High-security lag bolts should be used. Each cage should have a sturdy hasp and medium security (keyed alike) padlock. Padlocks should be attached to each cage near the hasp by 4 to 6 inches of link chain at least an inch thick that is welded to the body of the padlock and to the cage’s frame. This will help prevent the theft or misplacement of the padlocks.

For incoming after-hours deliveries, the driver simply places the supplies in the cage, closes the door, and locks the padlock. Linen and other outgoing shipments can also be left in the cages; pickup drivers can be given keys to the cage locks.

If a site has 24-hour security, a remote door release, intercom, and CCTV camera will allow control room staff to admit drivers to an outer dock area that is isolated from the rest of the building by doors equipped with readers or locks.


Management needs to provide security officers with clear, compassionate guidelines to follow in their interaction with homeless persons. They should begin by emphasizing that homelessness is not a crime.

Officers should also be made aware that many homeless persons suffer from mental problems. A 2005 U.S. Conference of Mayors study found that about 22 percent of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe mental illness. An earlier study, conducted by Goodman, Sax, and Harvey in 1991, concluded that homeless persons often display classic symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Officers should be instructed against using aggressive security tactics to remove the homeless from the premises. Homeless advocates recommend that security officers approach these individuals using the same tone and manner that they would use toward a family member.

Security officers should be trained to remain a safe distance away from a homeless person on the property both to avoid seeming to present a threat and to safeguard themselves. A small number of homeless persons carry weapons, such as knives or clubs, for personal protection.

Officers should not ask homeless persons for identification, as most have none, and many who do are unwilling to produce it out of fear that it will be confiscated or damaged. Most homeless persons realize that they are trespassing on private property; there is no need to inform them. The best approach is to simply and politely ask them to leave. The majority will comply.

Homeless persons should always be allowed to gather up their belongings and take everything they’ve brought onto the property with them—no matter how wretched or worthless it may appear to a security officer.

When homeless persons are encountered inside a facility during periods of extreme weather, site policy should reflect the absolute need to protect life; these individuals should not be evicted to the exterior. If need be, the homeless and their belongings should be offered the option of remaining on the property temporarily but being relocated to a temperature-controlled, vandal-resistant area, such as a loading dock, a little-used corridor, or a detention room if the security office has one. Security can then call a homeless shelter service to come pick them up. The phone numbers for all local homeless organizations, such as street patrols and shelters, should be retained in the security team’s post orders.

In general, a combination of sensible environmental modifications and practical, but compassionate, security team guidelines will produce the best results with the lowest potential for negative consequences.

Mike Fenton, CPP, PSP, is director of consulting and client support for Paragon Security in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Each year, the consulting practice deals with multiple requests for assistance with homeless-related security issues. He is a member of ASIS International.