In a recent Seattle Times article, Gene Balk did a difficult but important thing: He added much-needed context. Following a report that residents of Seattle have expressed increasing levels of fear about crime, Balk dug into actual crime statistics. What he found was that fear of crime far outpaces crime increase, particularly considering the city’s rapid population growth.
People in neighborhoods like Ballard are more afraid of crime than they have been previously, in spite of the fact that there’s relatively little crime in that neighborhood. So where does the fear come from?
In many cases, it comes from the fear of poor people.
On websites like NextDoor and on the local nightly news, “crime” and “visible poverty” are often used interchangeably. There is an assumption that homeless individuals are intrinsically dangerous, and that encampments and other signs of poverty must correlate directly with increased crime, particularly violent crime.
In fact, research shows people living outside are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators of them. Individuals who live outside — particularly women and queer folks — are disproportionately survivors of domestic violence, rape and assault, and life on the streets makes them vulnerable to additional attacks.
Research shows people living outside are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators of them.
It is true that homelessness, necessarily, means increases in crime because being homeless perpetuates crimes of necessity — public laws about where people can sleep, use the bathroom or even sit down mean that just existing while homeless is criminalized — but that doesn’t mean that seeing an encampment in a park means your neighborhood is less safe.
It just means that there’s no affordable place to live in your neighborhood — or the city — other than the park.
How do homeowners, then, become so convinced of a phenomenon that isn’t true? I would posit that it is because the local media knows what gets people clicking.
A recent KOMO news story about a tourist who reported being attacked by a possibly mentally ill person near the Space Needle, for example, has 522 shares on Facebook. The story does not mention that in 2017, King County saw a record number of people dying outside. KIRO asked how the city’s homeless population was “impacting safety” at popular tourist attractions. They didn’t ask how the city’s homeless population was impacted by policies designed to keep them out of sight of tourists.
Too often, conversations about “safety” are full of coded language about poverty, access and class. When someone mentions “crime,” ask whether they mean actual crime — or the perceived crime of being too poor to find a place to live.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation and Vice. View previous Access Denied columns.
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