For months, AllRisk Auto Insurance struggled with homelessness on its doorstep.
Coming into work, employees sidestepped people sleeping outside their building — a quiet, single-story office in a strip mall in central Vancouver’s Bagley Downs neighborhood. They cleaned up feces and trash. Confrontations sometimes broke out between staff and the people loitering outside, who commonly used drugs, according to Stephanie Weagant, the company’s vice president.
The last straw was when one employee said she didn’t feel safe in the office any longer. A man had stood outside the building, shaking the locked door and threatening the employee when she’d asked him to leave, Weagant said.
So, after nearly 40 years on East Fourth Plain Boulevard, the business moved in March to an area in east Vancouver that Weagant said doesn’t face issues with homelessness.
AllRisk’s experience, like those of other Vancouver businesses, reflects a common community concern about homelessness and public safety.
In Washington and nationwide, a public perception persists that people who are homeless are unpredictable and dangerous criminals. Media coverage, including television programs, often contribute to this narrative.
But in reality, the relationship between homelessness, safety and crime is complex.
When a person experiencing homelessness shouts or lobs threats — often due, in part, to mental health issues — it’s frightening, acknowledged Vancouver police Officer Tyler Chavers, a member of the city’s Homeless Assistance and Resources Team. But this doesn’t make the incident a crime, and it doesn’t mean the situation is necessarily dangerous.
“There’s a big difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe,” Chavers said.
In fact, people who are homeless are no more likely to commit violent crime than housed people, according to the state Department of Commerce. Homeless populations, especially women, teens and children, are actually more likely to be victims of violent crime, the department states.
Crime in Vancouver is on the rise, as is homelessness. The Vancouver Police Department documented a 73 percent increase in the number of reported offenses between 2019 and 2022. Homelessness increased 25 percent during that period, according to Clark County’s Point in Time Count.
For a deeper understanding of homelessness and public safety, The Columbian analyzed Clark County 911 call data in 2022.
The analysis found less than 2 percent of calls logged by Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency included the keywords “homeless,” “transient,” “houseless” or “unhoused” in the incident remarks. The data did not distinguish whether a person was a victim or a suspect.
This count suggests only a small number of emergency calls involve individuals described as homeless; however, this percentage is high compared with the size of the county’s homeless population, which makes up just 0.23 percent of the county’s population, according to the Point in Time Count and U.S. Census Bureau data.
The bulk of homeless-related emergencies did not involve violent or property crime. Rather, more than one-third was classified as “unknown” or “suspicious” — incidents typically involving residents and property owners who want individuals removed from an area, according to CRESA public information officer Eric Frank.
Of all Clark County emergency calls for stabbings, gunshots and penetrating trauma last year, just 2.6 percent involved people experiencing homelessness. Homelessness was involved in 3.8 percent of calls for assault, sexual assault and sex crimes, and 3.3 percent of calls for theft, burglary, robbery, trespassing and property issues.
Before relocating, according to CRESA data, AllRisk staff made nearly 30 calls to law enforcement regarding the homeless situation outdoors. Drug use was a main concern.
Weagant said she did her best to respond with empathy, but she also had to balance customers’ discomfort.
“When there are needles on the ground, foil on the ground, it affected our business,” she said.
She noted some people outside her workplace used drugs openly, knowing law enforcement couldn’t do anything. Following the Washington Supreme Court’s 2021 State v. Blake decision, drug possession is no longer a felony in Washington, generally preventing law enforcement from taking action unless the user is having a health emergency.
The numbers don’t always add up
There’s a lot the data doesn’t show.
Neither the Clark County Sheriff’s Office nor Vancouver Police Department keep data on the housing status of crime suspects or victims, making it impossible to know how many homeless-related emergency calls turn out to be crimes.
Furthermore, crime victims who are homeless don’t commonly call the police, instead preferring to settle disputes among themselves, said Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homelessness response coordinator.
Spinelli said she used to feel completely safe going into encampments. There were unspoken rules among residents: Look out for each other, and don’t steal from others who are homeless.
That’s not true today, she said.
Over the past few years, Spinelli said she’s seen this tacit code deteriorate. People are more likely to steal from and fight with other encampment residents. Some camps have grown more hostile, and for her safety, she no longer goes into some larger camps alone.
She partly blames the COVID-19 pandemic for this behavioral shift, because people had less access to resources.
“There’s so much more fentanyl out there today than there was three years ago, and the whole vibe of camps has changed along with that,” Spinelli said. “There’s a much greater sense of desperation, there’s more anger, there’s more fear, there’s more overdose.”
Chavers, the Vancouver police officer, approaches this statistic with caution. He thinks it ignores certain underlying factors, leading people to erroneously conclude the homeless commit a disproportionate share of crime.
“It’s kind of hard to just say, ‘Homeless people commit crimes at a higher rate than people who are housed,’ ” he said. “I’d have a hard time justifying that or even saying anecdotally I find that true.”
Self-identification of homeless status is one factor that skews this statistic, according to Chavers. Some people are reluctant to provide an address when jailed, even if they have one, because they don’t want law enforcement knowing where they live, he said.
Additionally, people without a fixed address are more likely to be labeled as “flight risks,” meaning there’s a higher chance they won’t show up to court. While those who are housed might get cited and released for a crime, those who are unhoused might go to jail for that same crime, Chavers said.
Spinelli agrees data can be misleading.
“That, to me, says not that homeless people are committing the majority of the crimes, it’s that that’s where the focus is,” Spinelli said. “So I don’t know how useful the data is.”
Studies show people who are homeless are often charged with “homeless status offenses” — crimes inherent to being homeless, like vagrancy, loitering and trespassing. Meanwhile, limited access to health care services and barriers to employment can trap people in a “revolving door” of incarceration and homelessness, according to a 2018 Prison Policy Initiative report.
Rather than jail, Spinelli directs people to resources and transitional housing options, such as the city’s Safe Stay Communities or Safe Parking Zone. Much of the time, though, capacity is limited, meaning people remain on the street.
Substance use and property crime
Another driver of incarceration rates is substance use.
Although drug possession is no longer a felony in Washington, people still commit property crimes to get money for drugs, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Research shows about one-third of people who are homeless struggle with alcohol or drug addiction.
“Drug addiction does fuel property crimes. Crime is a funding source for those without any other resources that are severely addicted,” Chavers said. This is true regardless of a substance user’s housing status, he added.
Jason Wilson lives in a tent in Vancouver’s Ogden neighborhood. Wilson, 49, has been homeless on and off since he turned 13. He’s been in jail and prison for theft, fourth-degree assault, use of a dangerous weapon and misdemeanors he attributes to a history of alcoholism.
When he was younger, he used to steal to support his addiction, but jail finally deterred him, he said.
But for those addicted to fentanyl, it’s hard to stop.
“I think it depends on the drug. A lot of the people are on those blues,” Wilson said. “It’s gone downhill a lot. The fentanyl pills are terrible.”
Wilson doesn’t use fentanyl — he said methamphetamine is his drug of choice — but he knows fentanyl users who “boost” from nearby stores, shoplifting to feed their habit.
“Electronics are the easiest thing to flip. Bluetooth speakers and phones,” Wilson said. Whenever he leaves his tent, he takes his electronics with him to ensure they’re not stolen.
Boosting is not unique to those who are homeless, he added: “It’s everybody. I know people who have houses that steal.”
The intersection of substance use, homelessness and theft might cause people to blame large encampments for Vancouver’s increased property crime. Research in Seattle, however, suggests there’s no correlation between camp size and reported property crime.
“Basically if a camp gets larger, crime doesn’t appear to go up, and certain types of crime might go down,” said Charles Lanfear, an assistant criminology professor at the University of Cambridge who analyzed the issue with Lindsey Beach of the University of Washington and Karen Snedker, a Seattle Pacific University sociology professor.
“If there is any connection, it’s much more related to specific types of property crime but not crime in general and certainly not violent crime,” Snedker said.
Lanfear has gotten pushback from people who insist theft in homeless camps is obvious, pointing out merchandise that appears to be stolen from nearby stores. He responds that the visibility of homelessness can be misleading.
“It might be the case that the same crime is occurring, but the evidence is much more visible because these people are living on the street,” he said.
He expects these relationships to look similar in Vancouver and Portland.
Chavers said many items that might appear stolen are actually donated or taken from illegal dump sites.
Chavers thinks outreach teams can play a large role in helping people who are homeless before they get tangled up in substance use or crime.
“Let’s meet them where they’re at, let’s catch them before they end up in crisis,” he said. “While they’re in the state of mind where they can make better decisions for themselves, we can help them.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.