Debunking Shelter-Crime Rate Myth

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Dispelling the Myth that Homeless Shelters Cause an Increase in Crime

When temporary housing shelters are set up in neighborhoods, many residents fear the crime rate will inevitably rise. In big metropolitan cities with large homeless populations, like San Francisco, San Jose, and San Diego, the opposite has actually happened.

Kimberly Richman, a University of San Francisco professor and criminologist who has studied the city’s crime rates for 20 years, admits that fear of crime never follows rationale. “There’s a lot of anxiety over how people imagine their neighborhood looking,” she says in The Frisc.

The negative stigma of homelessness is primarily fueled by a “not in my backyard” mindset. We are typically taught to fear and avoid homeless people from a young age. And it’s difficult to deprogram this fear. But the fear individuals have towards people experiencing homelessness is a key factor contributing to the harsh living conditions experienced by the homeless population. 

We oppose the construction of new shelters in our vicinity. We call for removing homeless encampments from our streets without considering the fate of the individuals living in them as long as they are relocated away from us. We often rationalize that individuals unable to secure a stable housing situation, (in the current era of expensive real estate) must be drug users or dangerous criminals who do not warrant access to fundamental life essentials. Our fear-based assumptions dehumanize these individuals.

In many cases, it’s homelessness itself that is being criminalized. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has compiled statistics indicating that nearly half of the 197 U.S. cities surveyed have enacted “anti-homeless” laws. These laws can result in the arrest of homeless individuals for activities such as sitting, sleeping, or loitering in public places for extended periods.

The offenses of “loitering,” “vagrancy,” and “trespassing,” which are typically associated with homelessness, result from behaviors that are inherent to being homeless and are largely unavoidable for those without a place to call home. According to a recent study, arrests for these offenses often lead to increased criminal activity, as being taken into custody and possibly incarcerated can make it considerably more challenging for individuals to secure housing.

Shelters are Far Better for a Neighborhood Than Tent Encampments and Often Lead to a Decrease in Crime

It is challenging to accurately measure criminal activity in areas with homeless encampments. This is mainly because many tent cities are established in densely populated areas already known for high crime rates. And homeless encampments are frequently found near pawnshops and liquor stores or in stretches of abandoned land or underpasses. These locations are already notorious for attracting significant criminal activity. Poorly built walkways, poorly lit streets, and the sale or distribution of alcohol can all contribute to the prevalence of crime.

Therefore, in areas where this is already the case, the establishment of a homeless shelter can become a convenient scapegoat. It creates a new group to blame for crimes that would probably occur regardless.

Most temporary homeless shelters are stationed in areas with a large population of homeless individuals and families, and are designed to replace homeless tent encampments. For example, in San Francisco’s Mission district, neighbors consistently complained about the tent encampment erected on South Van Ness as “out of control.” 

And most tent encampments do appear out of control. Their roughshod and makeshift nature appears “dirty,” “unsafe,” “frightening.” The homeless people who reside there are often hungry, scared, unshowered. Because they are desperately struggling to find food and stay safe, they can behave belligerently and often appear mentally unsound. A controlled, clean, safe shelter would seem to be the obvious answer to the dilemma.

But when city officials began planning a new kind of homeless shelter to replace the encampment on South Van Ness and provide a longer-term housing solution for the homeless, many of the residents bristled, fearing the shelter would increase nearby crime levels and increase the visibility of homelessness in the surrounding neighborhood.

A group of residents strongly opposed it, citing concerns over drugs and crime. They even raised funds and hired lawyers to fight against the center, but their efforts were unsuccessful, and the center ultimately opened. The Frisc, an online publication that covers San Francisco’s significant civic issues, decided to do its own analysis of the new shelters, called Navigation Centers, that were being developed across the city to determine what happened to nearby crime rates when the shelters opened their doors. The takeaway was evident after their exhaustive study

Whether immediately close by or slightly farther afield, there is no pattern of rising crime in the months that follow the opening of a center.

In San Jose, another major metro city just south of San Francisco, an interim housing development for people experiencing homelessness opened near the Berryessa/North San Jose BART station in early 2020. Within a year, four more opened throughout the city. During a City Council meeting, Jon Cicirelli, the Director of Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services, shared that when he spoke with residents about the interim housing shelters, they expressed concerns about the possibility of more encampments, RVs, increased crime, blight, graffiti, and dumping in the area. While these were all valid concerns, Cicirelli noted that he began looking at the data.

Upon analyzing the data, he found that calls to the police about drug possession, property crimes, assault, and graffiti, decreased at four out of the five sites. And total calls about open fires and illegal dumping also decreased. The data also didn’t show any felony crimes.

Most people in neighborhoods where interim housing shelters are erected are often pleasantly surprised that their fears were potentially unfounded. Despite the limited number of studies conducted, it has been observed that the presence of homeless shelters in an area does not commonly lead to increased crime. In fact, in some cases, crime rates have decreased, likely because providing shelter for homeless individuals reduces their likelihood of resorting to crime as a means of survival.



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