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Crime rates in Tacoma are spiking, and people who live on the streets are more likely to become victims — or catch the blame

Photography by Mark White, Dignity City

Above, Lamont Jackson says he fears for his safety. But so far, most of the crime he and his wife, Lisa have had to deal with has been petty. He feels lucky. Below, Lisa Jackson feeds her dog from the opening of their tent on G Street.

By Jon Williams

Dignity City editor

Lamont and Lisa Jackson live behind St. Leo Church in a tent pitched on a strip of grass between the sidewalk and the pavement on G Street. They’ve been there for two years.

From their spot behind the Tacoma church, the Jacksons are living through both a pandemic, that is threatening public health, and a spike in crime threatening security.

Pierce county continues to be at the top — or near the top — of Covid cases in the state, while crime in the area has risen dramatically. Add to that the steady increase in homelessness — the county estimates there are 3,300 people experiencing homelessness each night, with only 998 emergency shelter beds — and soon it becomes easy to conflate the numbers.

For the Jacksons, who live on the street, staying safe and healthy has just added to difficulties of living without shelter.

According to the FBI’s crime database, the majority of violent crimes committed in Tacoma happen on its highways, alleys, streets and sidewalks. And that means being on the street around the clock, like the Jacksons, makes you more likely to become a victim of crime.

“I’m even scared walking around,” said Lamont, who is a Vietnam veteran. “You’ve got to pick and choose where you walk. We’re an easy mark.

“When you live on the street,” he added, “there’s no trust.”

Petty crime is all round them and it’s easy to lose valuables if they’re sitting inside a tent and not locked away in a safer place. It’s also easy to lose your possessions in one of Tacoma’s encampment sweeps. Prior to living on G Street, the Jackson’s lived in their van. That got taken from them and they’ve never recovered it.

Tacoma crime data indicate all kinds of crimes are rising. Theft, motor vehicle theft, robbery, burglary, assault, sexual assault, arson, kidnapping and homicide are all trending upward over the past four years. Robberies have more than doubled in 2022 over the previous year according to statistics released last month by the Tacoma Police Department.

Tacoma’s new Police Chief Avery Moore, who started with the department in January, recently presented the city council with a plan to make officers more visible in high-crime areas throughout the city. Moore hopes to change the behavior of a small group who, he claims, commit the largest percentage of crime. Currently his department is understaffed, so he hopes to create local and state partnerships with others to achieve deterrence. His strategy is called “focused deterrence.”

Back on G Street, Lisa Jackson looks up from the tent opening and pushes aside a sheet of clear plastic used to keep the rain out. “We keep getting our phones stolen,” she said. She counts on her fingers how many phones they have replaced — stopping at 10.

Lamont adds that most of what they run into is small potatoes.

“There’s been nothing vicious — no guns or knives. It’s just petty, stupid stuff,” he said.

Petty stuff like cellphones — which seems like petty thievery until, as Lisa points out, you realize that they contain all your contacts and personal information. It’s hard to get that stuff back.

Around the corner from the Jacksons’ tent near the front of St. Leo, Kyle Reed is cleaning up outside a tent. Reed is optimistic. He thinks things are getting better in Tacoma lately. Nonetheless, he said, “If you mind your own business, you’ll live longer.”

Arthur Jackson, a disabled veteran from Arkansas, doesn’t share Reed’s guarded optimism.

“It’s open season on homeless people,” said Jackson, who was turning a hex wrench clockwise to tighten the bolts on a table in front of a friend’s tent on M Street.

“In my first 24 hours here, I got robbed in the Olympia Transit station,” he said.

Jackson, who is living at Motel 6 in Fife, stops tightening the table leg, looks around at the small assortment people and tents on M Street and says, “Look at all this… If this were some other kind of crisis, we’d all be living in FEMA trailers.”

Homelessness is indeed a slow-moving crisis. People who are affected are sometimes not seen as victims, but perpetrators.

Knowing that people who are experiencing homelessness quite often get blamed for spikes in crime, Sarah Cook, who has been on the street in Tacoma for five years, said that she hears gunshots nightly. “People think it’s us,” she said.

Do the homeless camps drive up local crime rates?

Two studies suggest no. In fact, just the opposite.

A 2018 study by The Guardian newspaper of organized encampments in both Seattle and Portland found that although crime and homelessness are often conflated, crime in areas around sanctioned camps was not generally accompanied by a rise in crime. The study found that some crimes in those areas actually decreased.

Seattle Pacific University Sociology Professor Karen Snedker agrees. She has been studying the subject in Seattle. Snedker’s research looked at tents placed throughout the city in two ways: tents belonging to city-sanctioned camps, which are self managed and self governed; and tents that are unsanctioned, isolated or in clusters.

She and her students conducted a census in 2019 in Seattle and did research in the areas of the city that had the most tents.

“The distinction is clear,” said Snedker, “Studies show that sanctioned tent encampments lead to a reduction of crime in the immediate area.” The reason, she says, is because residents live under rules and expectations and participate in community governance. They have 24-hour security to protect themselves. And that protection positively affects the surrounding neighborhood.

It’s like having a giant neighborhood watch.

“They are the eyes on the street. They’re watching, and it deters crime. It actually makes you safer,” said Snedker.

Those are the sanctioned camps. As far as unsanctioned camps, according to Snedker, most people don’t have good enough data to know what the answer is. She and her students are working on that. But, she says, there is no question that there was a time while homelessness was rising in Pierce and King counties and crime wasn’t.

Regardless, for many people there is still some conflation between homelessness and crime.

Snedker points to ongoing problems such as inflation — that rising cost of food, housing, durable goods, etc. It’s frustrating stuff. “Then what happens in the minds of housed residents is that things seem like they’re not working. Seeing homelessness and tents is an easy target for why things aren’t going well,” she said. “The real issue is that we might be conflating and if so, we are missing the cause of both problems.”

Back on G Street, while Lisa Jackson is thinking about solutions to local crime, a van pulls up alongside her tent. Shawn Walton, who volunteers with People For Animal Care and Kindness, opens the van’s side doors and takes out a tent and two new sleeping bags. She gives them to Lisa and Lamont, along with a few cans of pet food for their small dog. Walton spends her weekends volunteering these acts of kindness. Her day job is working for the local Catholic parish.

Still thinking about how to rein in street crime so she and her partner can sleep safer in their new tent and sleeping bags, Lisa Jackson says, “we didn’t get here overnight. There’s no simple solution to this.”

Perhaps Snedker sees a solution.

“I think you need to move away from unsanctioned camps to sanctioned camps on the way to permanent housing,” she said.

If data indicates sanctioned camps help stem street crime, while helping people get back into housing, then that certainly gives everyone something more real to conflate. Snedker admits more data is needed.

“We need better data on homelessness at multiple time points to truly assess the relationship between local crime and homelessness,” she said.

Snedker and her team at SPU are still working on collected data on tents over three waves between 2019 and 2020. Those findings will be available soon.

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