Recently the freshman Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis was listening to a discussion on the extreme rise in gun violence in the city, and some simple questions were raised that he realized he didn’t know concrete answers to.
Who’s doing the shooting, and where?
So he asked police for some data on shots fired in the city, cross-referenced with other factors the cops knew about each incident. The answers that came back have him saying some unusual-sounding things in progressive Seattle, that have some fellow council members “looking at me a little funny,” he says.
Things like: “It is blatantly evident that a significant amount of the city’s crime and disorder is attributable to conditions in homeless encampments.”
And: “It was easy to say ‘oh, leave the poor encampments alone,’ when there weren’t very many of them, and they weren’t leading to this.”
What Lewis found is that more than 18% of all shots-fired incidents in Seattle last year were associated with homelessness, according to police records. This means that “the victim, or suspect, are experiencing homelessness, or the [shooting] occurred at/near a homeless encampment or RV,” the police said.
These shootings were up 122% in 2021 versus 2020. “A nexus to homelessness accounted for the largest proportion” of incidents in the city, the police said — more than gang-related shootings, domestic violence, nightlife-related incidents, road rage, shootings during robberies or any other category.
Of the 113 homelessness-related shootings last year, the most were in the Chinatown International District (23 incidents), followed by Northgate and the downtown commercial district, with 11 each. About half of the shootings caused injury (56) or death (5).
Lewis runs the city’s committee on homelessness. He was shaken by this data — not because he didn’t know the unauthorized encampments were dangerous, but because his own committee hadn’t grappled with the extent of it. Probably nobody on his committee would have guessed that homelessness and the encampments were a bigger associating factor with Seattle’s shooting epidemic than gang activity (though there’s also some crossover between the two).
It doesn’t mean people living outside are uniquely prone to commit violence, Lewis said. Frequently it’s people in and around the encampments who are the victims.
“When I say ‘homeless,’ it’s a misnomer,” a police assistant chief echoed to The Seattle Times last week, in a story about how 40% of the police homicide unit’s case load is related to the encampments. “We’re seeing the violence centered on illegal encampments, where there’s a general sense of lawlessness that concentrates bad actors and concentrates narcotics in one area.”
“I am not making any argument from this data as to the causation of the shootings,” Lewis said. “Encampments though are massive magnets for crime. On that the data is clear.”
It’s an issue that has twisted Seattle in knots for years. Clearing encampments is seen as criminalizing or victimizing poverty, and so they’ve often been allowed to stay and grow, out of a sense of compassion.
I’ve argued in this space for more than a decade now that allowing these makeshift encampments is a humanitarian catastrophe — back to the days of The Jungle, which itself was only closed after a mass shooting. The shantytowns are an embarrassment to both Seattle and the liberal project. We need more shelter — tiny house villages, tent cities, motel rooms, safe parking lots, FEMA facilities — so that the city can end the unsanctioned camps and provide safer, managed places for people to go.
The end goal is permanent housing, but that’s going to take many, many years to build.
This is a debate I have lost.
“The city has actually lost emergency shelter units this year,” Lewis said.
But Lewis said he’s noticed another correlation, one that’s as powerful as the shooting stats.
“There has never been a shooting in a tiny house village, or on the premises of JustCARE,” a hotel-based shelter program which serves the toughest cases out of the encampments, Lewis said.
“These shootings occur out in the encampments,” he said. “But if you bring people into shelter, the disorder generally doesn’t follow. In the tiny house villages or JustCARE hotels, there’s security, community, management, counseling. I think out in the encampments it’s survival-based, and people just respond to the demands of their environment.”
JustCARE, which got started during the pandemic, has had success moving people out from the hillsides and under bridges. Of seven encampments cleared, including the one next to the King County Courthouse that had seen a murder and a string of assaults, JustCARE got about 200 people to come inside while about 40 did not, for various reasons, according to a report by the group last month.
“It’s the most effective program I’ve seen in a decade of working on quality of life issues downtown,” Brian Cannon, of the Downtown Seattle Association, told the council.
It’s also very expensive — $49,000 per bed per year just for services and staffing. That doesn’t include the cost of the hotel room itself. This price is the main reason the program is fighting for survival — its funding is scheduled to expire in June.
So here we are again, with this same choice. We can pay to get people inside, into temporary shelter as a start, and prod it along by clearing encampments. Or we can keep saying “leave the poor encampments alone.”
I asked Lewis what his aim was for speaking out bluntly like that, other than potentially getting run out of office.
“I think we haven’t been entirely honest about the public safety impacts of this issue for some time,” he said. “That’s really it. It feels like Seattle is at a pivot point right now and can stand to hear these facts.”
Hope he’s right. But these encampments have long been one of Seattle’s most perplexing blind spots. A lot is riding on which way we pivot, or if we can change course at all.