Conflating Seattle Street Crime With the Homeless Won't Solve Either Problem

Criminalizing the homeless is not the answer

This article appears in the June 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

One business executive was punched in the face one evening while leaving his Pioneer Square office. Another was assaulted while walking along Seattle’s waterfront. Anybody who spends time in downtown Seattle knows the street scene is out of control. I’ve seen drug users shoot up on the sidewalk across the street from my sixth-floor office window on Fourth Avenue. I’ve witnessed open-air drug deals at Third and Pike while walking to work. I fend off aggressive panhandlers at least once a week. This is not about criminalizing the homeless, or transients, or those with chronic mental health issues.

It’s about feeling safe in downtown Seattle. Plenty of people don’t. And that worries business leaders a lot.

As Seattle Business magazine writer Heidi Mills reports in this month’s issue, visitors have expressed safety concerns to city officials and business leaders. King County set records for tourism and convention business last year, but at least one organization decided against a future convention here after a site visit.

Nearly every major city in the country struggles with homelessness. The number of homeless encampments reported in the media increased 1,342 percent between 2007 and 2016, according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which notes that law enforcement threats do not decrease the number of people on the streets.

But conflating street crime with homelessness is misleading. In an annual count of the homeless in King County last year, only 21 percent of survey respondents cited alcohol or drug use for their lack of shelter.

In a report issued last February, consultant Scott Lindsay — a onetime adviser to former Mayor Ed Murray who unsuccessfully ran for City Attorney in 2017 — found that a relatively small number of prolific offenders “repeatedly victimize Seattle’s busiest neighborhoods while cycling through the criminal justice system.”

Lindsay examined about 100 such offenders, and each of them apparently struggled with substance abuse. After police arrest defendants, it takes an average of six months for the Seattle City Attorney’s office to file theft cases, meaning these individuals are back on the streets committing crimes to feed a drug habit. The report listed several downtown-area retailers hit particularly hard by theft, including TJ Maxx, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Uwajimaya, Target and Home Depot. More recent numbers reveal that 66 of those prolific offenders have been arrested on criminal charges since mid-February.

As the National Law Center notes, several cities have begun to take less punitive approaches. Officials in Charleston, South Carolina, developed a comprehensive social services plan to assist the homeless before dismantling tent cities. City officials didn’t make a single arrest or destroy any property. Indianapolis city officials passed legislation that homeless encampments could not be closed until adequate housing alternatives were in place.

It may not seem like it, but Seattle is making some progress. The city announced in April that more people moved from homelessness to housing last year than in 2017.

Perfect solutions are impossible to come by. City officials and business leaders, though, have a responsibility to create a safe environment for residents and tourists alike in a humane, thoughtful way.

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