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Debunking Myths: Shelter villages are crime hotspots

April 21, 2023

Many fear that even city-sanctioned shelter villages will mean an increase in crime. Real-world evidence shows this is a myth—and in many cases the opposite is true. 

The homelessness crisis and violent crime were two of the top concerns for Oregon voters according to a 2023 poll. This holds true across the country, and many see these sensitive issues as inseparable, making it even more challenging to work toward a solution.   

In our experience building over 100 Pallet shelter villages—and working with officials in over 85 cities—worries about increased crime top lists of concerns for potential neighbors. This is understandable. People are invested in their community and naturally protective of it. Widespread myths and stereotypes about homelessness only increase fears of how a local shelter village might impact community crime rates.

But we’ve seen firsthand how a well-planned and well-run shelter village changes minds. Neighbors, city officials, and shelter village residents almost always see it as a boon to the community, with benefits that outweigh any downsides.

Crime rates in the area often drop when unhoused people leave the streets for safe personal shelter and the peace of mind it brings, plus access to the wraparound services they need to take steps toward permanent housing.

How shelter villages reduce crime

In data collected from 2020 to present in the surrounding neighborhoods of eight different Pallet shelter villages in Los Angeles, a significant reduction in crime rates shows how secure shelter and supportive services play positive roles in building community. While rates of crime committed by unsheltered suspects rose citywide by an average of 19.4%, they dropped by an average of 24.9% within a quarter mile of each site. In one such instance, the rate dropped a drastic 63.8%. 

We saw a similar story play out at a Safe Stay Pallet shelter village in Vancouver, Washington. In the year after the village opened, crime in the neighborhood dropped substantially, with a 29% reduction in calls and officer-initiated visits compared to the same period the previous year.

Fewer incidents of criminal activity were recorded in Denver, too: even as total citywide crime rose 14.3% in 2020-21, in the areas surrounding Safe Outdoor Space (SOS) camps, it dropped 2.8%. What’s more is that the following year, crime around SOS neighborhoods was reduced an additional 14.1%.

Homelessness and crime

While people experiencing homelessness are involved with the criminal legal system at higher rates than the general population, the reasons are complex and often stem from the mere fact that they have nowhere to live. Unhoused people are also many times more likely to be victims of crimes—especially violent crime.

In most places, homelessness itself is a crime. Homeless status offenses—purported crimes of vagrancy, loitering, or trespassing—are unavoidable for people experiencing homelessness, and research shows they lead to more crime because the cycle of arrest and incarceration makes it significantly harder to find housing.

Crimes committed by people experiencing homelessness are most often out of desperation to meet basic survival needs. Take away desperation and much of the crime disappears with it.

The solution starts with a safe place to sleep

Unsanctioned tent encampments with no support services and no oversight increase risk across the board—to physical and mental health, safety of self and belongings, and to the surrounding area in the form of increased crime. But when people enter a secure, organized shelter community with safe personal shelter with heat and air conditioning, meals, and professional support services for all aspects of their well-being, crime becomes unnecessary.

An evaluation of a supportive housing program in New York City found that after two years, 86 percent of participants remained housed (compared with only 42 percent of the comparison group, who didn’t receive supportive housing services), and they spent 40 percent less time in jail.

“It’s easier to have hope when you’re treated as a whole person,” says Rusty Bailey, former mayor of Riverside. "It’s easier to be motivated—in counseling, in substance treatment, in a job search—when the people around you see you as worthwhile. I know Pallet’s shelters offer these things because I spent more than 10 nights in a unit in 2019. I wanted to know what we were providing. I found the shelters to be highly functional and offered residents a stable environment from which they could begin to improve their lives. During my stay in the personal shelter, I spoke with a number of residents experiencing homelessness who desired their own shelter like the one I slept in.”

As one Pallet shelter resident explains, “I have my own space. I could close my door and lock it. I go out. I don’t have to worry about anybody coming into my room and stealing. The [service provider] helped me get my ID, they helped me get my Social Security card and my birth certificate. It’s new to me. To trust in people—is it really happening? It’s weird, but it feels good.” 

A dignified, supportive environment is key

Like all communities, a personal shelter village—and its residents—thrive with organization and a management team invested in its success. This means:

Pallet established five dignity standards that all our shelter village operators must meet for the safety and dignity of all involved. These standards address access to hygiene facilities, meals, transportation, safety, and supportive services. Easily accessible services for medical needs, substance use and mental health treatment, and help navigating the challenging path to stability and permanent housing are especially critical.

A way forward

Rather than further criminalizing homelessness in our cities and living in fear of our unhoused neighbors, providing safe personal shelter tied to a potentially life-saving support system—a proven model for success—will help break the cycle to ultimately end this crisis and create safer communities for everyone.

Read Debunking Myths: Homeless people shouldn’t own pets.

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