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Visible homelessness has been on the uptick in American cities, pushing many of them to confront a sensitive question. Do unsanctioned homeless camps cause crime? NPR's Martin Kaste reports the question is crucial as city leaders come under pressure to clear the camps.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: If you're asking whether unsanctioned homeless camps generate crime, the neighbors of those camps tend to have a ready answer.
SCOTT WHITE: Oh, gosh, yeah - huge theft ring, huge drug ring, prostitution.
KASTE: That's Scott White in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. He's talking about the 70 tents that grew up in the park across the street from his building, allowed to stay there while social workers offered services and tried to coax residents into shelters. It was a months-long process, and he says during that time, the drug store where he worked nearby was beset by shoplifters. Some of them assaulted him. One sent him to the ER.
WHITE: And this guy just - boom - got me here. This side of my face was black and blue for, like, six months. It was horrible.
KASTE: You can hear similar complaints up and down the West Coast - people on Nextdoor talking about following electronic trackers to find their stolen property stashed in a camp or the surge in bicycle thefts, as tracked by the group Bike Index. Co-Founder Bryan Hance reviews the reports of stolen bikes as they come in.
BRYAN HANCE: The phenomenon of the open-air chop shop has certainly, I think, risen with the same terrible problem of homelessness all across America.
KASTE: People see their stolen bikes or the bike parts being sold online, and Hance says the photos often betray the seller's location.
HANCE: If you're seeing a bike that is in a pile with many other bikes, you know, leaned up next to a tree - you know, empty 40 ounces, heroin needles - you know, we take all that into account.
KASTE: So the anecdotal evidence seems clear. And yet when you talk to the experts, things get murkier. Charles Lanfear is a criminologist and quantitative sociologist now based at the University of Oxford. He's been working on this very question. Do the camps increase crime? And he says it's complicated by confirmation bias.
CHARLES LANFEAR: In the public narrative, there is such a strong association between encampments and crime that it's leading people to assume that any change in property crime is attributable to the tents and structures in their neighborhoods.
KASTE: Scientifically, a big problem here is just getting accurate counts because here, we're talking about illegal camps, not those that are sanctioned by the city or by non-profits. This has been such a challenge that Lanfear had shelved his research until he discovered a meticulous census of unsanctioned camps done by a team of researchers at Seattle Pacific University.
LANFEAR: The only sort of data set of this kind that I've ever seen in a place where I also have reasonably good data on property crime.
KASTE: With these data, he's been able to analyze the changes in reported property crime in Seattle alongside the growth of unsanctioned camps. And he's come to this conclusion.
LANFEAR: On average, an increase in the number of tents and structures in an area is not associated with any increases in property crime - very close to zero.
KASTE: But he says this is an average, a citywide result. At a smaller scale, certain camps may well be worse than others - for instance, near downtown, where the drug economy is fueled by shoplifting. This young drug user is peddling a random assortment of six packs laid out on a used pizza box on the sidewalk.
So how much is the beer?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Four dollars. Would you like to buy a case?
KASTE: The link between certain unsanctioned camps and crime is obvious to Jon Scholes, head of the Downtown Seattle Association.
JON SCHOLES: This, in many ways, is a cancer on our downtown retail environments, where the illegal retail trade feeds and sustains an illegal active drug market.
KASTE: But in liberal cities such as Seattle, these concerns have collided with the latest thinking from activists and academics who oppose clearing camps. Alex Piquero of the University of Miami has studied policing and homelessness for years, and he favors what he calls a tolerance-first approach.
ALEX PIQUERO: These people need services, just like someone who's sick and needs to go to the doctor, and you have a doctor say, OK, well, this is why you're sick. This is what you need to do. The key is doing that first.
KASTE: The problem is it takes money and time to get people to leave their tents voluntarily. And in the meantime, the visibility of the criminal activity in the camps can feed public frustration or worse. This was coverage by local TV station KIRO 7 last summer.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: These are photos of what happened when police say a couple went into a South Lake Union homeless camp trying to get stolen items back, and it ended with someone getting killed.
CAROL CUMMINGS: I am worried about people taking matters into their own hands.
KASTE: That's Carol Cummings, a retired suburban police chief who's lived in Seattle for decades. She worries that people have given up reporting many property crimes, which may hold down the official crime statistics even as public frustration builds. She regularly talks to police officers, who she says are also frustrated by the hands-off approach to the camps.
CUMMINGS: It's hard because they know that there are people within those encampments that are victims themselves that they're not able to reach out to and help. And I know that might surprise people that an officer might think that, but, in fact, that is the truth.
KASTE: Police know what they see. In this case, they see bad things happening inside the camps as well as around them. Add that to the neighborhood's perceptions of rising crime, and it becomes a tough sell for those who point to the statistics and argue for more tolerance. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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