How to Locate and Serve a Homeless Person
Editor's note: This article was written by Larry Kaye from ShadowAnyone.com. The opinions expressed here belong to Larry Kaye.
If you are experiencing homelessness and would like help, please reach out to organizations like the Nationwide Coalition for the Homeless or groups directly within your city.
Every now and then, you will need to serve process on somebody who is homeless and living on the streets. This can be very challenging. But before discussing how to find a homeless subject, it is important to identify what qualifies a homeless person as homeless. Remember that, though most are men, the homeless population includes women and children. Also, not everyone experiencing homelessness spends their nights sleeping on a bus bench or under an expressway ramp. Consider the people who fall into these categories and view themselves as homeless:
Types of Homeless People
- Living indoors but in a temporary rental room. Examples include staying at a hotel or motel, “flop houses”, or the Y.M.C.A.
- Staying with a friend. Someone may consider themselves homeless even if they’ve been living on a friend’s couch for six months!
- Living with parents. We may not think of this as homelessness, but an adult child may consider themselves homeless if he’s living in their parent’s basement.
- Living on the streets. Finally, what most people traditionally think of as “homeless,” the person living in a tent on the sidewalk, in a park, at a shelter, or under an expressway ramp.
Finding the Homeless: Sources and Methods
Serving the homeless begins with finding them. However, do not miss the fact that many times a party to the case knows where the person routinely stays. This turns your “skip trace” back into a “simple” service of process. If your client is not aware of your subject’s location, you can use these methods and resources to find the homeless:
Start with your databases just like you would with other skips. Honestly, you are most likely not going to find a current address there, but you will find leads including a last known address and family members.
Keep in mind the places that the subject routinely visits or has previously listed as an address may lead to a current location. And they may still use that previous address. A lot of homeless people have an address they use for mail even if they do not stay there regularly. It is also the address they will give to the police if they are arrested and for other interactions with the government or aid agencies. An address belonging to a relative or friend might show up regularly because if you ask a homeless person for their address, a lot of times they will respond with the address of someone close to them.
Pro Tip: There’s a big difference between asking “What is your address?” and “Where do you stay?” If you ask “What is your address?” they’re going to give you where they usually have their mail sent, which can be a PO Box. But “Where do you stay?” is a whole different question! That may get you the actual location where they sleep at night.
Law Enforcement Sources
Arrest records, court records, criminal histories, incarceration history are often a starting ground to gather more information. These kinds of records will provide you with addresses or names that may result in a successful serve.
These leads potentially include old addresses where the individual may return. Old addresses also provide possibilities for interviews or pretexts on other people who know your subject or were arrested at the same time.
One thing that will come up a lot when dealing with addresses from police reports and arrest records is that you will see their address is simply listed as, “Streets of Los Angeles”, “Streets of Chicago”, “Streets of Milwaukee” or whichever city in which they are arrested.
If an individual does have a record, do not forget to check with your subject’s parole or probation officer. The subject may even have an upcoming case they need to show up for. Since many cases require a defendant’s presence, this may be a safe bet to locate them in order to serve papers. Please note that you will want to keep cases separate and not serve them in the actual courtroom. Be sure to maintain your case’s integrity and your professionalism as a process server.
Pro Tip: When you check police reports, be sure to run your subject’s name once as a perpetrator and as a victim. Homeless people are often the victims of crimes.
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Obviously, it’s important to know if the person you are looking for is dead, but obituaries are also a great place to find the names of family members who can help you.
With obituaries, you are looking for a close family member who has passed away. Reading through the obituary, you will find a list of the deceased’s relatives and one of those family members may give you a lead on where your homeless subject is.
Pro tip: Do not just read this week’s obituaries, but rather do an online search in your local paper for similar last names to research years of information.
Hit the Streets
You can only do so much searching from behind a screen and you may just have to hit the streets to find a homeless person you need to serve. When you are out looking, here are some people you can talk to who may be able to point you in the right direction, even if they don’t know your particular skip:
The local police will know where all the homeless camps are as well as other places the homeless may be seeking shelter during the day. While a police officer may not be able to give you a lead on your specific person, they can give you tips on different places to look.
Charities may have insight on where homeless people in the area seek shelter. They may not be comfortable sharing information about your specific subject, but they might share where they bring blankets in the wintertime or which shelters people go to pick up clothes on Tuesdays. Learning these things can give you a lead on where to find your subject.
Other homeless people
Of course, these can be some of the more dangerous interviews you conduct, not because the person you are talking to may hurt you (which is always something to be alert about in this field, regardless if they are homeless), but because you may find yourself in some more dangerous and isolated places. Use common sense and be careful!
Pro Tip: Just because a person was kind or helpful to you one day does not mean they will be safe to talk with later. Just like anyone you interview, if they are having a bad day, things can quickly turn dangerous.
The Real Key
It’s important to remember that people have habits, customs, activities, and places they go regularly. These habits and routines can be the key to finding and serving the person and this includes the homeless.
Even though they may be homeless, there are places they prefer to be. Locations that offer affordable or free shelter and are welcoming, such as a YMCA or homeless shelters, may be ideal to spend several hours when the weather is cold. Some individuals may stay in places that are not so obvious, like safe areas outside (think weather-protected ramps). People have habits and routines. Homeless people are no different.
Pro Tip: A homeless alcoholic will have a place he regularly buys his alcohol and he might be there several times a day, even if only briefly.
Knowing Your City
If you’re already familiar with the area and residents, you may already know which people to talk with and the best places to look. The better you know these parts of town, the better you will be at locating and serving the homeless.
Pro Tip: If you are a private investigator as well as a process server, you may be hired by a concerned family member to find a homeless person or deliver them a message from the family.
The more you do specialized process serving, the better you will become. The experience adds up and frequently transfers from one serve to another.
For example, in my city, there is one guy in particular who “busks”. He plays an electric guitar on the streets for tips. To do this, he has a little battery-powered amplifier hooked up to his guitar. The funny thing is, he buys the cheapest batteries he can find from the same place all the time. When I go out in this particular neighborhood, I’ll see six, cheap double AA batteries discarded in some bushes or behind a bench and I will know for sure that he was there. There is no doubt about it. He leaves a trail and, depending on the condition of the batteries, you can determine how recently he was there.
When you have that level of knowledge of the street you are working, finding somebody is much easier. When you know the area that well, you also know the people well. You can ask them questions and talk to them. If you don’t know the people, a friendly interview or a casual conversation builds rapport and familiarity. Keep in mind that people are often suspicious of newcomers asking direct questions and requests for “rewards” for sharing information. As an agent of the law, be sure to maintain professionalism and never compromise the case’s integrity.
Pro Tip: I do not “buy” information from people, but having a few cigarettes to give out casually, if they ask, can help build rapport.
Procedurally, serving the homeless is the same as any other serve. The primary differences are finding the person may require more specialized skip tracing skills and the places you find yourself serving them may be more isolated than you are used to.
Going “back to basics” with your skip tracing and intentionally practicing standard process server safety precautions will lead you to a successful and safe serve.
For more information about serving the homeless or the private investigation industry, check out Larry Kaye's active and educational YouTube channel:
Help for the Homeless
If you or someone you know are experiencing homelessness, reach out to relevant organizations and shelters in your city, or the Nationwide Coalition for the Homeless.
If you would like to help those affected by homelessness, please reach out to similar organizations that assist in providing homeless people with a higher quality of life and help end this crisis.
About the Author
Larry Kaye is a semi-retired private investigator and process server who now concentrates on training and education within the industry. He is the creator of The Investigator’s Ultimate Guide Series including The Investigator’s Ultimate Guide to Process Serving. He has written books that are consistently on Amazon’s Best Seller list in their categories. His books include 51 Dirty Tricks Bad Guys Really Hate and 51 Weird Private Investigator Tricks That Actually Work. You can see his weekly videos and training articles at ShadowAnyone.com.