He lived in his car tucked alongside a gentrified residential street just blocks from the Pacific Ocean. He was an unknown person, like most of the people living on the streets, until he was accused of an atrocious crime: mowing down innocent people who were simply strolling along a world-renowned beach, and running over people with the very car in which he was living.
The news piece brings up an interesting, more philosophical question: Could ending homelessness actually reduce crime?
Critics may think asking such a question reinforces the false stereotype that people who are homeless are all criminals ready to steal, hurt, or kill innocent people. Advocates for people who are homeless have created studies describing the ways in which this country treats our most impoverished Americans like criminals.
Just attend a local city council meeting when the building of a new homeless shelter is on the docket. Angry neighbors fighting to prevent such a facility from being built in their neighborhood argue like the place would be full of murderers.
In truth, if we look at crime and homelessness, the very people living on our streets are more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators. Attacks against people who are homeless have become critical in many states, even resulting in hate crime legislation.
Todd was another man who lived on the streets just blocks from the Pacific Ocean. He hung out at the local Starbucks and became a friendly, recognized face for the coffee addicts in the neighborhood. But, several years ago, police found his lifeless, beaten body on the beach.
Todd was a victim of both homelessness and crime.
But what about crime by homeless people? Do hate crimes against people who are homeless mean that people who are homeless do not commit crimes? Not necessarily.
In Britain, experts believe 20% of their “rough sleepers” (people who are homeless) have committed a crime. The conclusion, however, is that these crimes are usually acts of survival or ways for people to get off the streets. Prostitution, shoplifting, or theft are certainly illegal, but they are acts that some people on the streets perform to try and improve their situations.
But there are certainly hardcore, violent criminals on the streets, too. The problem is that our communities have become so numb to homelessness that we allow homeless encampments to be scattered in the hills, beaches, rivers, and parks, so that these havens of homelessness become places where violent criminals can blend in and hide.
Most of the time, homelessness is not the source of crime in an area, but the places where people experiencing homelessness gather could become havens of crime. Both crime against innocent people living on the streets and crime against innocent people who are already housed.
The real solution is to eliminate these encampments of homelessness by helping people get housed.
So, could ending homelessness reduce crime in our neighborhoods? Yes.
When there is no more homelessness, there will be no more crimes against people who are homeless. When there is no more homelessness, people living on the streets will no longer have to break laws to try and get off the streets.
And when there is no more homelessness, there will be no more “safe havens” for those who truly are criminals.