“On average, an increase in the number of tents and structures in an area is not associated with any increases in property crime — very close to zero”
— Quantifying Sociologist Charles Lanfear, via NPR.
Across the United States of America, crippling poverty is taking hold of society, exacerbated deeply by multiple health epidemics and the quiet but steady deregulation of corporate greed. As the holes in our social safety nets fray to the point of breakage, homelessness is not only becoming more prevalent, but it is also becoming increasingly more visible. Some of this is due to the rise of homeless encampments, alternatively referred to as tent cities.
The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness acknowledges that increasing tent cities started even before the pandemic and is driven mainly by economic hardship. Interestingly enough, when mainstream media cameras turn in the direction of such encampments, rarely do they report on economic hardships. They do not reflect on the racism and classism fueling the housing crisis and ultimately forcing people onto the streets. Instead, the reporting almost always deals with a different, less desirable tent city struggle – crime.
This sort of biased lens reporting sews seeds of animosity between housed people and their tent-dwelling neighbors. Invisible People research presented in the paper “What America Believes About Homelessness” shows that people perceive the homeless community as dangerous, criminal, and addicted to illegal substances in concentrated areas with high unsheltered populations. This negative view leads them to support harsh, punitive responses to tent cities such as encampment clearings and arrests.
The idea that homeless encampments cause crime has been the general assumption. The grainy footage retrieved from the media has been perceived as evidence. But now, in the wake of a groundbreaking research project, everything America believes about homeless encampments is being debunked.
Historically, the Perceived Link between Homeless Encampments and Crime has Been Difficult to Prove or Disprove
At this point, you might be wondering why similar studies on the subject did not precede the one Postdoctoral researcher Charles Lanfear intends to present. It is certainly not for lack of effort on behalf of researchers.
NPR explains that quantifying criminal activities in areas where homeless encampments are erected is challenging for numerous reasons. In particular, many tent cities are established in densely populated spaces already ripe with crime.
These homeless encampments are often situated in front of pawnshops and liquor stores or along the stretches of abandoned land or underpasses. These places already tend to draw a great deal of crime on their own. Poorly constructed pathways, dimly lit streets, and the distribution or sale of intoxicants like alcohol can help facilitate crime.
When urban planners talk about crime reduction in infrastructure, they usually suggest things like better lighting and taller trees. Nobody serious about crime reduction would suggest adding more pawnshops or removing trees to make room for corporate high rises. Urban planners know that would be a strategy for failure.
So, in places where that’s already the layout, the erection of a homeless encampment almost becomes a convenient distraction. It’s a new group to point the finger at for crimes that would likely take place anyway.
While it’s important to note that most of these regions were laden with crime from the onset, crimes most certainly do take place in homeless encampments. However, the story that isn’t told is that the homeless people living there are more likely to be the victims of those crimes than they are to be the aggressors.
Perpetuating the Myth of Homeless Encampments as Sources of Violence Tips the Scales in Favor of Criminalization
Since it’s difficult to pinpoint which came first, crimes or homeless encampments, many researchers get discouraged and abandon their studies. Nobody wants to present a flawed inaccuracy to the world. But there is a good reason for more data to emerge on the subject.
In brief, perpetuating the myth of homeless encampments as sources of violence tips the scales in favor of homeless criminalization. This is a startling trend that has already saturated the nation.
Think about it. If everyone said crime was the direct result of the corner homeless encampment, you’d blame the people in the encampment. The average person has neither the time nor the knowledge needed to debunk myths that are harming people. Even scholastically trained research analysts are facing obstacles.
That’s where this recent project comes into play. Seeing a need for more hard data on encampments and their relationship with crime, sociologist Charles Lanfear created a statistical model, a sort of digital window into a very misunderstood world. What was revealed – the fact that increasing encampments do not implicate escalated property crime – certainly shocked police and other authorities, nearly to the point of disbelief.
This, too, is quite disturbing. After all, these officials are in charge of regulating and clearing homeless encampments. They also present legislation that will directly impact residents of homeless encampments.
Talk to Your Legislators About Making Housing a Human Right
Homeless encampments are not the answer to the growing homeless crisis. Neither are forceful sweeps that often incite violence against the unhoused community.
Only when we make housing a human right and we offer every single person a safe and affordable home will we see a reduction in the real crime here – homelessness – which is a crime against all of humanity.
Please urge your local legislators to advocate for your unhoused neighbors today.