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Homelessness and Crime: California’s Hot-Button Political Issues Are Even More Complex Than You Think

What causes the cycle of homelessness and crime, and how to stop it.

PUBLISHED JUN 17, 2022 2:24 P.M.
The cycle of crime and homelessness is escalating, but it doesn't have to be that way.
The cycle of crime and homelessness is escalating, but it doesn't have to be that way. Russ Allison Loar / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. Share-Alike 4.0 License

In the June 7, 2022, primary election Gov. Gavin Newsom cruised to a first-place finish with almost 60 percent of the vote—and that was after easily thwarting a recall effort the previous year, collecting about 62 percent. The Democratic governor would seem politically invulnerable if not for two problems—homelessness and crime.

A February 2022 poll by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that 61 percent of California voters rated Newsom’s performance on addressing the homelessness crisis to be “poor” or “very poor,” and 51 percent gave him the same alarming rating on the issue of crime.  The same poll found that the homelessness crisis and “crime and public safety” were two of the top four issues considered most important by Californians, sandwiched between housing affordability and the price of gasoline.

The primary elections showed, however, that crime and homelessness are perhaps not as crucial voting issues in California and the national media narrative would have the rest of the country believe. Nor is the connection between homelessness and crime straightforward. 

While there is a well-established association between homelessness and criminal activity, one study found that the link is largely due to “homeless status offenses,” that is, mostly minor offenses that are simply part of being homeless, such as “loitering.”

Another survey found that crime involving homeless people in the state’s largest city, Los Angeles, while “disproportionately high” in relation to the number of homeless people, made up less than 10 percent of all crime in the city. Those stats included crimes in which a homeless person was the victim of crime, as well as those with a homeless suspect.

But while homelessness may not cause as much crime as the general public may believe, crime is definitely a cause of homelessness. According to statistics from the Prison Policy Initiative, Americans who have been convicted of crimes and sent to prison more than once are 13 times more likely to become homeless than members of the general public. Those who have been incarcerated only once are seven times as likely to fall into homelessness. 

How worried should Californians be about the connection between crime and homelessness? And what can be done to help solve both problems?

How Much Crime Do Homeless People Commit?

Though the amount of crime in which a homeless individual is named as a suspect is disproportionately high given the size of the homeless population, it comprises a relatively small share of all crime, at least according to Los Angeles Police Department data studied by KABC-TV. 

According to the KABC study, eight percent of crimes in the city involved homeless people in 2021 and in 2020. That figure includes crimes in which homeless persons were the suspect, but also those in which the victim was homeless (or both). So the actual percentage of violent crimes committed by the homeless is lower. 

According to the LAPD stats, most homeless-involved crime is violent. The percentages have stayed roughly the same each year since 2018, when 60 percent of homeless-involved crime was classified as violent. In 2021 the figure was 61 percent. 

In 2021, however, 25 percent of homeless-involved crime, according to the KABC study, was neither violent crime, nor property crime. So what was it? According to a 2018 study by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in which 255 homeless persons were interviewed over a two-year period, the most frequent charges fell into the category of what the study’s authors described as “homeless status offenses.” 

Those are offenses which result “from behaviors intrinsic to homelessness.” Those include “loitering,” “vagrancy,” and “trespassing,” all of which are largely unavoidable for people who have nowhere to go. The study found that arrests for these offenses lead to more crime, because getting arrested and, in many cases, incarcerated make it significantly more difficult to find housing

"Criminal activity isn't a staple characteristic of these people," Sean Fischer, the author of a New York University study on homelessness and crime, said in an American Psychological Association report. "It may be more accurate to think of them as people struggling to get by."

“Homelessness itself is linked to criminal behavior through homeless status offenses,” wrote the University of Texas study’s authors. “Negative effects of arrest and incarceration on housing acquisition warrant consideration of alternative legal system interventions to break the cycle of homelessness.”

How Does the Homeless-Crime Cycle Break?

What the study’s authors rather opaquely referred to as “alternative legal system interventions” can be summed up in plain English as, “keeping the police away from the homeless.” According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “far-reaching efforts to criminalize homelessness make the already-precarious state of being homeless and unsheltered even more dangerous.” 

By “criminalizing” homelessness, the group is referring to the fact that homeless people who engage in such normal human activities as sleeping, walking or as the Alliance noted, “simply existing” can bring homeless people into contact with police, who may arrest them for “loitering” or other such purported crimes. 

“When their existence is considered a crime, people experiencing homelessness can be punished with expensive tickets and citations, ‘sweeps’ which force them to evacuate the areas they’ve come to know as a home, and even arrest and incarceration,” the Alliance wrote on its website.

Reducing enforcement of “homeless status offenses” is just one step toward reducing homeless crime. Perhaps the even more important step is getting homeless people into housing, particularly once they have already been subject to arrest or incarceration.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a philanthropic organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration and “overcriminalization,” has worked since 2017 with public housing authorities (PHAs) in four regions, including San Diego County, to help create policies that make public housing more accessible to people who have been recently released from prison.

The Vera Institute offers eight recommendations to PHAs to accomplish this goal, one that according to the studies cited above should make a significant contribution to reducing homeless crime. The recommendations can be summed up, however, as “looking beyond conviction history,” to evaluate housing applications on an individual basis rather than simply excluding anyone with a criminal conviction.

“We must take a hard look at how we treat people who have repaid their debt to society,” the Vera Institute says. “We should open doors, not shut them.”

The Dangers of Being Homeless

While unsheltered persons are statistically more likely to be arrested than other people—with nine times as many saying they had spent at least one night in jail in the previous six months, according to a California Policy Lab study—they are also far more likely to be victims of crime, particularly violent crime.

San Diego County data from 2021 showed that member of the homeless population there were murdered at 19 times the rate of the non-homeless population, and were 27 times more likely to be subjected to attempted murder—as well as 12 times more likely to be assaulted and nine times more likely to be sexually assaulted.

In Los Angeles, during the pandemic period from March 2020 to March 2021, crime in the city’s homeless encampments jumped 51 percent from the previous 12 months. The total of 221 incidents was a 173 percent increase from two years before. 

Throughout Los Angeles, in the first four months of 2021 the homeless population suffered 651 incidents of violent crime, compared to 637 in the same period the previous year. Those numbers are almost certainly low compared to the real figures, because a large number of crimes against the homeless are believed to remain unreported.

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