News that will surprise basically no one: A Seattle University survey on public safety revealed that people in Seattle’s neighborhoods are concerned about homelessness.
Twenty of Seattle’s 57 neighborhoods listed homelessness — specifically homeless encampments and car or RV camping — among their top five public safety concerns in the 2017 Seattle Public Safety Survey, an annual data collection exercise that has been ongoing since 2015. An additional three communities listed “aggressive panhandling” as a concern, an activity often associated with homelessness.
In the longer form, narrative responses, themes relating to homelessness appeared at least once in the top fives for 39 different communities. Such responses varied from homelessness as a “public safety and public health issue” — by far the most prominent — to more pointed statements that either the mayor, City Council or city as a whole was not appropriately dealing with the homelessness crisis.
Although researchers have not yet rigorously analyzed the written responses, there is an anecdotal connection between perceptions of public safety and homelessness, said Jacqueline Helfgott, a professor of criminal justice and director of the Crime & Justice Research Center at Seattle University.
“What we’re seeing in our comments is that a good percentage of people making comments think homelessness is a public safety issue and we need to do something about it,” Helfgott said. “A good percentage see it as a social justice issue — that there needs to be more services provided for homeless people and the mentally ill.”
More than 6,450 Seattle residents took the survey, with 2,999 leaving written comments. The most common respondent was a middle-aged White woman. To compensate for potential disparities, Helfgott’s team weighted responses of other demographics to better match the makeup of the city.
The team works to make the survey accessible. It’s currently translated into 10 languages and has a physical copy for people without access to a terminal. Graduate students are assigned neighborhoods and push the survey out through as many channels as possible.
While neighborhoods mention homelessness as a public safety issue, residents report elevated fears of crime in some of Seattle’s safer neighborhoods.
Crime statistics don’t necessarily translate into people’s positive or negative perceptions of crime, Helfgott said. Police departments gather information on property and violent crimes for the Uniform Crime Report, which goes to the FBI each year, but that leaves out “nuisance crimes,” such as graffiti, that may make people feel unsafe.
“If one individual is afraid to walk to the grocery store, the crime stats don’t even matter,” Helfgott said.
It’s hard to say at this point if the heightened perceptions of crime are related to homelessness.
The anecdotal conflation of homelessness and criminality has been bubbling up in Seattle public forums and online spaces in recent months. Photos of a pile of hypodermic needles fly around Facebook pages and headlines are ready to pounce on isolated violent crimes perpetrated by the unhoused.
Consumption of media influences how people perceive the world around them, with people who pay more attention to news more likely to report that the world is a darker, more dangerous place.
But at this point, it isn’t possible to draw a direct line between homelessness and crime.
Homelessness is associated with “social disorder,” one of the metrics used in the study, Helfgott said. Social disorder is associated with increased crime. “Social disorder” scores also increase in communities based on socioeconomic status and ethnic diversity.
Helfgott and the team will follow up the study with an academic analysis of the written responses to see if they can derive a deeper understanding of how Seattleites feel about homelessness and mental illness.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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