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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Do crime rates rise with homelessness in Spokane?

UPDATED: Wed., April 17, 2019

Homelessness and crime. Crime and homelessness.

They are key components of a debate that’s been raging in cities across the nation: Are crime rates soaring with the growing number of homeless people, and if so, what to do about it.

In Spokane, the discourse has pushed its way into the 2019 mayoral race, with several candidates promising long-term solutions to homelessness – no doubt spurred by KOMO-TV’s “Seattle is Dying” special that aired in mid-March.

The hourlong report concluded that Seattle’s homelessness problem was allowed to grow amid lax enforcement of laws, a police force not able to do its job and unchecked drug abuse. The story was framed from the perspective of residents, police and business owners, many of them angry that drug use and crime have proliferated.

Shortly after its release, a wave of discussion was sparked as Spokane’s mayoral candidates shared their insights. Shawn Poole saw it as an “unadulterated, intrinsic look” into homelessness. Retired KXLY anchor Nadine Woodward recognized it as a warning to Spokane. And City Council President Ben Stuckart referred to it as an over-generalization of a complex issue.

But if the history of local crime is any indication, there were worse times to be a resident of Spokane – homeless or otherwise. Property crime hit some of its highest peaks in the ’80s and ’90s – when about 200 people were homeless, according to newspaper estimates.

That compares with a citywide count of about 1,300 today. There was more violent crime a few decades ago, too, FBI data show.

If you plotted homelessness on a line graph, starting in 2005 when the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development started keeping track, and compared it with property and violent crime, you’d find the three don’t quite correlate.

In 2013, when Spokane’s property crime rate hit an all-time high of 9,345 incidents per 100,000 residents, the city counted just 1,030 homeless people – among the fewest since counting began.

The next year, when the homeless population grew to 1,149, the city’s violent crime was at one of its lowest points – 547 incidents per 100,000 residents.

The average violent crime rate has been about 670 incidents per 100,000 residents per year since 1985.

When the violent crime rates were higher, some areas of downtown, like the 1100 block of West First Avenue, were infamous, dotted with seedy hotels, adult bookstores and rough bars.

“There was so much drugs down there,” said Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl. “That was basically every single night, you knew you were going to go down there and work on crime.”

Meidl, hired in 1994, said seeing a homeless person downtown was rare. No camps, no tents, no sleeping bags under overpasses. Yet at the same time, there was a slew of criminal activity along downtown’s toughest stretches.

“For the second time in three days, gunfire erupted on a notorious stretch of West First Avenue,” a Spokesman-Review story from 1996 begins. “Five people were injured early Sunday in a drive-by shooting in front of the Coach House Restaurant.”

Among the victims that day was a 19-year-old woman. She had the misfortune of standing among a crowd on the corner of First Avenue and Madison Street as shots erupted from a passing car.

Today, Meidl says illegal activity does correlate in some ways with homelessness, though it’s typically considered a “quality of life” crime. He said as much to the House Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee earlier this month, along with a panel of Washington’s top law enforcement officials who spoke on the topic of homelessness.

Meidl said petty crimes such as breaking city ordinances, harassment, disorderly conduct and property crime are all wrapped up in the discussion. Last summer many business owners around the House of Charity complained that property crime was running rampant. An analysis by The Spokesman-Review showed police were responding to more calls near the shelter than other parts of downtown.

“We’ve spent about $22 million in the past two years on the homeless issue,” said Meidl. “We have business owners who are expressing frustrations. I think that’s where we see a lot of angst in our community.”

In all likelihood, the gang-related shooting in ’96 would have been investigated by Lt. Alan Arnzen, one of the Spokane Police Department’s few officers with more than 35 years on the force.

In 1996 he was a detective working his way toward a sergeant position. Before that, though, he was a beat cop, working the streets of downtown from corner to corner starting in 1983. Back then it was quieter, he said. No cars along Division Street at night, and certainly no sleeping bags under downtown archways.

But the overall hushed silence was often interrupted with pockets of noise.

“There were areas of town you did not go to,” he said. “Unless you lived there, or you were a cop. It was dark and scary.”

Along First Avenue, it was common to see drug deals, prostitutes and gang violence, said Arnzen. Now it’s mostly empty, with boarded-up shops with the promise of new development. Same for East Sprague – back then known as Spokane’s skid row – which today boasts a spattering of retail shops, restaurants and breweries.

Three decades ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a business owner willing to open an upscale coffee shop in the thick of it. And yet, in 2018 it’s hardly a concern.

“I had no reservations about First Avenue after some research,” said Debi Di Bernardo, the Roasthouse Coffee owner who last year opened First Avenue Coffee near the Montvale Hotel. “I just had reservations about launching a retail business.”

In 1994 – the year violent crime in Spokane hit an all-time recorded high of 866 incidents per 100,000 people, including four murders and 252 robberies, according to recent FBI data – police and residents were still struggling with how best to deal with homelessness.

“As street kids grow, so do their tragedies,” reads one story published April 24, 1994. The reporter talked to several teenagers who spent their days sipping coffee and buying drugs on the corners along First Avenue. “First and Jefferson is the ghetto of street kids,” one teen said. “It’s the lowest you can go.”

That same year, The Spokesman-Review published a story about how “transients find library just too good for words” just as the new downtown library at Main and Lincoln opened its doors. Much like today, people were concerned the homeless wouldn’t respect the building, just as service providers went to bat for them.

“The whole idea is free and open access to information,” said the then-executive director of the public library division of American Library Association. “When we start seeing barriers at libraries like we see at convenience stores, we’re totally destroying the mission of the institution.”

Fast forward about 25 years and today the library is experimenting with something not often seen in corner stores: the installation of blue lights in bathrooms to dissuade people from shooting up drugs.

Meidl and Capt. Brad Arleth agree that as the city changed, so too did the crimes and drugs they found on the street.

The stereotypical image of a transient 30 years ago was an older single man clutching a bottle of alcohol. Today it’s mostly people in their 20s. Most are still men, and about 12% cite chronic substance abuse as a reason for being homeless, according to recent city data.

“It’s not optimal for any city to have open drug use on the streets, no matter who it is,” said Arleth. “I think one of the problems we face is there isn’t enough beds to get people into treatment.”

Since a HUD count in 2009 that showed 1,229 homeless living in Spokane, the numbers have more or less stayed the same a decade later. In the KOMO “Seattle is Dying” piece, not much is said about why homelessness in Seattle is rising.

But the impression is left that drugs are a likely factor, a sentiment some carry over to Spokane.

“Obviously we don’t have all the answers for why we’ve seen those changes over the years,” said Kelly Keenan, the director of Spokane’s Community, Housing and Human Services Board, the entity that oversees homeless counting in the city. “These bottom line figures are very much one piece of a very complicated set of figures.”

Complicated also is how Rob McCann, president of Catholic Charities, describes homelessness as it pertains to crime. He’s heard the worry and concerns from residents that their city is dying for two decades.

The latest wave came fast and furious after the KOMO story aired. It may have hit hardest.

“It’s not surprising to me at all. The strategy to vilify and criminalize the homeless has been going on for a long time,” he said. “The easiest way to make someone afraid of homeless people is to criminalize them. To make them think they’re going to mug you.

“Come down to House of Charity and serve lunch one time. I guarantee if you do that and serve lunch one time you will change your mind.”

Editors note: The story was updated Wednesday, April 17, 2019 to correct the spelling of Kelly Keenan’s name.

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