SEATTLE — Six people who were living homeless in Seattle have been shot to death in 2022 so far. While a tiny fraction of the homeless population, the rise in gun violence is a worrying trend for people living on the street and those trying to serve them.
Gun violence in Seattle’s homeless encampments is a complicated issue that people who work with those living outdoors say is driven by the drug trade, sex work, unpaid debts, the pandemic and more.
Other cities on the West Coast are also seeing a worrying spike in violence targeted at and done by people living outdoors.
The Seattle Police Department declined to speak to this trend, and data shared with public officials does not point to a singular cause.
In the early hours of June 20, Anthony “Gonzo” Gonzalez, 56, was sitting on his bed in the makeshift home he had built from tarps and other materials in a homeless encampment in Delridge. According to court documents, someone he knew, Jaycee Thompson, is accused of kicking in the door while holding a shotgun.
“Where are the drugs and the money?” Thompson asked Gonzalez, according to a witness in the room who spoke with Seattle police.
Thompson asked the question again, but before Gonzalez could respond Thompson shot him in the head, the witness said.
Seattle police arrested Thompson, 43, soon after the slaying, and prosecutors have since charged him with Gonzalez’s murder and in connection to another shooting and multiple robberies.
This was one of three fatal shootings in homeless encampments within a week. A 37-year-old man in Ballard and a 31-year-old man in the Chinatown International District were also shot and killed in late June.
Seattle police declined to comment on those shootings and have open investigations.
The King County Medical Examiner had identified three other homeless people who died of a gunshot wound in Seattle so far this year.
Gun violence in Seattle, overall, has exploded since 2020. Reported gunshots rose 40% — from 437 to 612 — between 2020 and 2021, and the first six months of 2022 show an additional 50% increase.
Earlier this year, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis asked Seattle police for data on these shootings. What he saw was that 113 — 18% — of all gunshots reported in 2021 “had a homelessness nexus,” which meant either the shooter was homeless, the victim was homeless, or it occurred at or near an encampment.
So far in 2022, there have been 353 gunshots reported and 20% involved a homeless person in some way or were near an encampment.
However, the data does not break down how many incidents fall into each category or give any explanation for why these shootings are occurring.
Lewis said encampments are “massive magnets for crime. On that the data is clear.”
Lewis, though, suspects “it’s not the people, it’s the environment.”
He said interpersonal conflicts likely arise from having such a large number of people in the same space. His solution is to build and acquire more noncongregate shelters and move people into them “because the shootings don’t happen at tiny house villages. The shootings don’t happen at noncongregate sheltering facilities like hotels.”
He cites research recently published by Gregg Colburn, a University of Washington professor of housing policy, that shows noncongregate shelters call 911 less than a quarter as often as congregate shelters, which Lewis said suffer from the same crowding problem as encampments that leads to interpersonal conflict.
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell agrees with Lewis. A spokesperson for his office said the mayor plans to continue his approach of offering shelter to people living in encampments to address the increased violence around them.
But people closer to the violence don’t believe that the environment is the root cause or the full solution to the problem.
Jeannie Grande, 40, was living in a Chinatown International District encampment when a fatal shooting occurred there early Friday. Police have not identified the person killed, but Grande said he was a 31-year-old man who was like a little brother to her.
“He was, like, a really warm person,” Grande said.
Grande said all she knew about his shooting was that her friend owed someone money.
“And instead of facing the problem, and dealing with the problem, this person fled and avoided it,” Grande said. “Certain people are going to take it as a form of complete disrespect and disregard.”
To Grande, getting shot was not a surprising outcome for being unaccountable to your debts.
“To me now, it’s like, how can I apply this to my life and just take it as a lesson?” Grande said.
This is how the “rules of the game” are enforced in the informal economy that homeless people often reside in, said Lisa Daugaard, executive director of JustCARE, a homelessness outreach and shelter organization.
“It’s not that encampments cause this,” Daugaard said. “It’s that people’s level of marginalization from the formal economy means that folks are getting by in an economy that’s unregulated, except by force.”
And when people who are enmeshed in the illicit economy, such as selling drugs or sex, come inside to shelter, she said those relationships and conflicts do not immediately disappear.
“If somebody’s under pressure from someone on the outside, whether they’re being trafficked, whether they owe a debt, we encourage folks to share that with staff so that we can figure out a plan, so that they can live safely, and our staff can be safe,” Daugaard said.
According to Daugaard, more people have turned to the illicit drug and sex trades recently, because of an economic situation that has become “more and more desperate over the last two years.”
During the pandemic, Daugaard said the few ways homeless people had to make money largely disappeared. Panhandling opportunities dwindled. People stopped hiring for in-person odd jobs like babysitting or yard work.
And while the federal government provided an unprecedented amount of benefits and protections during the pandemic for people who had jobs and were laid off or were renting, Daugaard said, “for people who did not have those things, they got nothing.”
“This is completely predictable,” Daugaard said of the uptick in violence around homelessness. “We are seeing the creation of a more dire economic emergency for a larger number of people than I can remember in a long time.”
Other organizations that work with people on the street point to a return of encampment removals as amplifying the violence among homeless people.
When people have to move to a new encampment, said Karen Salinas, director of outreach at nonprofit REACH, that means having to re-navigate the social order in the new location, which can be difficult for people who suffer from high rates of mental health and substance issues. When people involved in the drug or sex trades move to a new location, she said that can introduce disputes over turf. And with fentanyl, a dangerous and potent opioid flooding the drug market, Salinas said, “It makes the drug trade even riskier than it was because you’re playing with something even riskier.”
And there are often not spaces available that offer medical, substance use and mental health services that many homeless people need to stay inside when the city orders removals, Salinas said.
The mayor’s spokesperson, Jamie Housen, wrote in an email there’s no data that can prove or disprove the claim that encampment removals exacerbate violence. He also said that shootings with a connection to homelessness had increased in the year before Harrell took office.
Since Harrell’s term began in 2022, Seattle has largely returned to the pre-pandemic status quo of removing homeless encampments at a rapid pace.
The mayor’s office said the city tries to coordinate outreach before encampment removals to get as many people into shelter as possible. But Grande, who has been living on Seattle’s streets for nine years, said each of the four times her encampment was removed this year, outreach workers missed her or she wasn’t in the encampment when they came.
“I have nothing and I’ve been ripped to nothing multiple times,” said Grande, who lives in someone else’s tent in the Chinatown International District and only owns one bag of belongings because she said she has been forced to move so many times.
“When people start to build some sort of stability, and then you rip that out from underneath them,” Grande said. “People get discouraged. When people get discouraged, it becomes chaotic.”
She said that discouragement can lead to people making bad decisions like taking out debts that can’t be repaid or resorting to theft. She feels like she is at a breaking point too.
“Desperation comes from instability,” Grande said.