Among the top priorities of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, two have received top booking in the last six months: Ending homelessness and ending gun violence. To demonstrate the City of Seattle’s commitment to both of these goals, Durkan has released policies to address them, including a new safe storage law for firearms and assembling the newly-convened Innovation Advisory Council. For local elected officials, guns and homelessness have been top-of-mind issues this summer.
Or, rather, guns and homelessness have remained two separate top-of-mind issues. Because the space where those two health, safety and equity matters overlap has decidedly not been explored, highlighted or even discussed.
Though they are both pressing concerns, and concerns that absolutely interact with and feed on each other, homelessness and gun violence are rarely mentioned in the same breath, let alone linked through policy; in conducting interviews for this story, nearly every source admitted that while they could certainly see the link, it was not one that they had ever drawn. It’s also an area with a limited amount of study.
But that guns — and gun laws — directly impact the homeless community is objectively factual. It’s just the degree to which they overlap that has been relatively unexplored.
The facts, at least some of them, are these:
• Gun violence disproportionately impacts marginalized groups. Homelessness does as well.
• Guns are a leading cause of death in both homicides and suicides. Homeless individuals are statistically at high risk of both.
• Guns dramatically increase the likelihood that a victim of domestic violence will be killed. Women living outside are disproportionately, overwhelmingly survivors of domestic violence.
• In the hands of adolescents, guns are extremely dangerous, both to the owner and to others. Homeless teens are more likely to commit suicide than their housed peers — and more likely to do it if they have access to firearms.
There’s a discomfort in talking about firearms and the role that they play in the lives (and deaths) of homeless individuals, in part because the narrative is a bit murky. It’s a messy topic. It’s a big topic. But it’s also a topic that hasn’t been examined nearly enough.
Who are the victims?
There is a known link between economic struggles and gun violence. Though the most visible crusaders for commonsense gun laws have been upper-middle-class White women and the most visible victims of gun violence have been children in schools, the fact is that much of America’s gun violence is confined to neighborhoods and areas where folks aren’t quite as high profile.
Gun violence tends to victimize those who are already at risk — and in areas, like Seattle, where there is clear economic inequality, those risks are even higher. In “Killing the Competition,” author Martin Daly concluded that income inequality, more than any other metric, is the best indicator of homicide.
In the United States, economic disparity is almost always equal to racial disparity. Nationally, Black men are 16 times more likely than White men to be shot and injured in assaults that involve firearms. Firearms are the leading cause of death for Black children and teens.
Homelessness, too, disproportionately impacts Black and Brown folks; in a city where just 6 percent of the population is Black, Black folks make up 29 percent of the homeless population.
In theory, access to firearms should be cost-prohibitive; guns are expensive. But stolen guns, and the kinds that are used and traded among individuals who engage in illegal transactions and businesses, are often treated as somewhat disposable, making them more likely to fall into the wrong hands.
This is where safe storage and disposal comes in; part of Durkan’s approach to preventing firearm deaths is to make it less likely that people who might use a gun to commit harm can get one. King County has even provided financial incentives, like discounts, to help make gun storage more feasible.
Unfortunately, even with discounts, locking up a firearm can be costly, particularly for a population who are already looking to reduce the weight of what they carry, or who are afraid that their belongings will be swept. Locking up a firearm then becomes an extra burden – and firearms still run the risk of being used to commit violent acts toward marginalized people.
Guns and violence and gun violence
Though gun violence is typically viewed as an outward form of harm — that is, we assume that the damage done by guns is solely when firearms are used against others — the data show that the owners of guns are often, themselves, also the victims.
This is true in the general population; according to data from the state Health Department, 75 percent of firearm deaths in Washington in 2015 were suicides. Additionally, the report found that 47 percent of individuals who committed suicide that year used a gun.
Adding poverty to the mix increases the suicide rate. In an interview with Talk Poverty, researcher Martin S. Kaplan explained that research following the economic downturn in 2007 found that changes in finances can greatly change a person’s state.
“There’s some evidence that with the Great Recession we saw a rise in unemployment, we saw a rise in foreclosure rates, we also saw a rise in the rate of poverty—which may have contributed even more than the other two measures in economic distress,” he explained. “That rise in poverty contributed to an uptick in the suicide rate.”
As deaths among unsheltered folks have increased, suicides have as well. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office (MEO) documents the deaths of homeless individuals carefully. According to their most recent report, out of 143 homeless individuals who have died so far this year, 11 died by suicide.
Nationally, homeless individuals commit suicide at a much higher rate than the housed population; one study found that, of homeless individuals who died violent deaths, close to 14 percent were suicides. The suicide rate among homeless people is believed to be as much as 10 times higher than that of the general population.
Anitra Freeman, who is the President of the Board of Directors for Women’s Housing Equality & Enhancement League (WHEEL), says that she understands why suicide might cross the mind of a person living outside.
“In despair, when you lose all hope, that can seem like a solution. Especially if you’re disconnected, if you’re isolated ... there’s nothing to hold onto,” she says. “You don’t think there’s anybody who is going to be hurt.”
Just as it is in the housed population, limiting access to guns is a major deterrent. Eliminating illegal firearms, which can be exchanged for a much lower cost than those sold in pawn shops, can help reduce the number.
Freeman says she doesn’t know any homeless individuals who carry a firearm — but she does know that, in her experience, the people who do are involved in the drug trade or sex trafficking. Often, she says, individuals with firearms use them to gain power and control within unsanctioned encampments because they know full well that no one will call the police.
“If you were camped out and you didn’t have to worry about being swept, then if the guy in the tent next to you is dealing drugs and has a gun … you could call the police,” she explains. “A lot of the danger in the camps — the danger to other people in the camps and the surrounding neighborhood — would be less if they weren’t so afraid.”
Calling the police in an unsanctioned encampment is a quick way to find yourself out of a place to stay; once police enter the area, they can report it to the city and execute a sweep. That, says Freeman, keeps a lot of people silent.
Like when, just a few years ago, a woman was shot to death in a camp by Yesler Terrace.
“She was shot by the guy in the next tent over,” Freeman says. “If she hadn’t been afraid of the police, would she or her partner have called? Would somebody have called?”
The MEO tallies seven murders of homeless individuals so far this year — four of which involved a gun.
Homeless partner violence and its role
There are other reasons that folks living outside may be too afraid to call the police. Specifically, homeless women are often hesitant to accept services because they know that their data might get swallowed into the system, leaving them vulnerable to abuse. But often, that abuse is what puts them outside to begin with.
“People fleeing from domestic violence don’t feel safe anywhere,” Freeman explains. “They don’t feel safe inside — when you think, you know, ‘he can track me down anywhere.’”
Homeless women, especially, are often living in fear.
“When you’re a homeless woman, you’re afraid all the time,” she says.
The link between domestic violence and homelessness is well established. Though data has historically been difficult to attain — due to low reporting of violence and difficulty interviewing unsheltered folks, among other issues — the best figures find that more than 80 percent of homeless individuals have experienced domestic violence, while as many as half are outside as a direct result of violence in the home.
Just having a gun around puts women and children in more immediate danger.
On their website, the National Domestic Violence Hotline states that “according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health, the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent.”
Additionally, the site notes, “more than half of women murdered with guns are killed by family members or intimate partners.”
That means that firearm access, which directly contributes to lethality among abused women, may chase women out of violent households and into violent streets — where, research has shown, they are likely to be attacked again.
Though proponents of encampment sweeps often cite the safety of women and children as their primary concern, rarely do they address the fact that, at present, there are not enough shelters in the Seattle area for survivors of domestic violence. This is particularly salient, because women who are survivors of domestic violence are granted special protections under the law, which allow them to remain anonymous when they’re entered into the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS).
“Many survivors fleeing abuse situations have very practical concerns about their immediate safety,” says Tamaso Johnson, public policy director at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “In this context, information about who they are and where they are staying poses the potential to create real re-victimization risks if it falls into the wrong hands, either through breach or other access. On a more fundamental level, abuse isn’t just about violence, it is about a person’s self-determination and autonomy being taken away, the exertion of power and control over a partner.”
Data collection of this nature can also be traumatic, forcing survivors of abuse to make difficult choices.
“We are placing survivors in a double-bind if we are presenting, as the societal response to violence and control, systems that demand the surrender of personal information, personal autonomy in exchange for something as fundamental as housing,” Johnson explains.
Federal law forbids domestic violence services and shelters from mandating data collection and sharing. Washington law is also unique, Johnson says, “in terms of promoting dignity and self-determination in the data collection context by requiring all persons seeking shelter or services, not only survivors, to proactively ‘opt-in’ before providers can enter their personal information into HMIS.”
Additionally, the Violence Against Women Act includes provisions to protect survivors of abuse, including eviction protection for those who choose a more independent path toward housing. However, in Section 8 housing, a landlord can still evict a survivor if they believe the survivor has broken the law — like, for example, if she had a firearm, improperly secured or registered, to protect herself. And so the cycle begins again.
No silver bullet
It is undeniable that homelessness and gun violence overlap. It’s undeniable that homelessness puts people at risk of violence and that people who are homeless are often there because of violence. It’s undeniable that many upstream attempts to end gun violence will not offer direct protection to homeless individuals, nor will they help prevent homelessness.
It’s undeniable that we don’t know enough to say much more.
In researching this subject, it’s clear that there is a great deal of missing data. There are precious few studies about homicides of homeless individuals, of gun violence in unsanctioned encampments or of arrests. There is little information about what the impact of sweeps has on the likelihood of campers to call the cops, or whether they’d be more likely to tip police to their dangerous neighbors. And, because it hasn’t gone into effect yet, there’s no report on whether homeless folks will be impacted by safe storage laws.
There are big forces who want to keep it that way. Nationally, the NRA has held its vice grip over Congress, keeping the Centers for Disease Control from researching firearm deaths for nearly 20 years. Meanwhile, competent research into homelessness is also relatively new (within the last 30 years, anyway) and fairly limited in scope. We know some things about our homeless neighbors, but we don’t know everything. For example, we don’t know how many carry firearms, how many have been the victims of violence related to firearms or how firearms may have influenced their housing status.
We don’t know which gun laws or changes to existing rules might benefit the homeless the most because we don’t know which aspects of gun violence impact them the most.
In Seattle, there is a substantial pool of potential participants. If we wanted to, any one of the local universities or nonprofits could study these intersections to guide policy or future action. Instead, though, it seems that guns and homelessness will be kept separate – at least in principle, if not in practice.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer, policy consultant and interim editor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice.
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