By Paul Kiefer
In the two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, gun violence in Seattle has both surged and transformed. While the number of gun homicides fell from 2020 to 2021, both the number of people shot and the number of shots fired rose by roughly 40 percent. One of the key drivers of that increase, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz told the city council’s public safety committee last week, was an uptick in shootings at encampments.
Over the past two years, gun violence at encampments across the city escalated dramatically. In January 2020, only 6.5 percent of the city’s shootings took place in encampments; by December 2021, at least a quarter of Seattle’s shootings were in encampments. Police reports about encampment shootings cite drug deals gone wrong, personal disputes or unpaid debts as inciting incidents, but Diaz did not identify any broader reason why violence in encampments is on the rise.
While Seattle’s efforts to reduce gun violence have historically relied on outreach to young people in gangs, City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s committee on housing and homelessness, now argues that the city should think of moving people from encampments to shelters as an essential part of reducing gun violence. “There’s something about unsanctioned encampments—they attract gun violence,” he said. People living in encampments may carry guns to protect themselves, Lewis noted, and people involved in low-level survival crimes often can’t turn to police or courts to resolve disputes.
“When people are inside and having their needs met, we just don’t see the kinds of violence we see when they are dealing with the insecurities of living in an encampment.” —Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis
In an email to PubliCola on Wednesday, Diaz added that he has no plans to redirect his department’s gun violence prevention resources to focus on encampments.
In Lewis’ view, while shelters are not the only solution to rising gun violence, they seem to have helped curtail it. As examples, he pointed to the city’s tiny house villages, run by the Low-Income Housing Institute, and the hotel-based shelters run by JustCARE, a collaboration between counseling, outreach and diversion providers that serves people with serious behavioral health challenges. So far, he said, there have been no shootings at any JustCARE shelter or tiny house villages.
“When people are inside and having their needs met,” Lewis said, “we just don’t see the kinds of violence we see when they are dealing with the insecurities of living in an encampment.”
Although Lewis has championed both tiny houses and JustCARE, he says preserving JustCARE’s funding is more likely to reduce gun violence because the program exclusively serves people who’ve been involved in the criminal justice system. “Generally speaking, JustCARE clients have had opportunities to be a victim and, in some cases, a perpetrator of gun violence,” he said, “and the fact that they have developed a sheltering strategy that can mitigate that is incredibly valuable.”
In Lewis’ view, the council should start viewing JustCARE “more as a jail and violence mitigation program than as a shelter program. We can find a way to remove people who are vulnerable to being victims or perpetrators of violence from the street in a more sustainable way than putting them in jail.” JustCARE’s funding, which includes federal COVID relief dollars, is set to expire in June.
While Diaz agreed that shelters have been relatively safe, he told the council last week that SPD has responded to more calls from social workers who say they have been threatened with guns in the past year. Diaz framed his comments as a response to questions about safety in shelters, but he did not offer any examples of people being threatened inside either shelters or low-income housing. Instead, he pointed to a February 2021 incident in which a man shot at a staff member inside a Catholic Community Services administrative building in the Central District before fatally shooting himself.
Outreach workers caution that the root causes for the uptick in gun violence may require a more complex set of solutions than shelter alone.
“It’s true that people living in encampments are easy targets for predatory organized crime, like someone who needs a place to stash stolen merchandise, and that getting folks inside would make them less vulnerable,” said REACH Outreach Director Karen Salinas, who leads outreach for JustCARE. “But when we talk about who is committing gun violence and who is a victim of gun violence, we’re usually talking about two separate populations. We can make potential victims of gun violence safer by moving them indoors, but the behavior that leads someone to commit gun violence requires a kind of intensive intervention that shelter providers aren’t best-positioned to offer.”
Salinas added that some of the factors that lead to gun violence in encampments, especially outstanding debts, can follow people to shelters. “When people owe debts, that’s harder to mitigate,” she said. “When people go inside, their debts don’t necessarily disappear.” A more thorough response to gun violence, she said, would require a careful examination of why gun violence spiked in encampments during the pandemic and interventions that focus on perpetrators of gun violence specifically.
Lewis’ committee will discuss JustCARE’s future on Wednesday. Lewis plans to argue that the program’s role in reducing gun violence justifies its price tag—$7.3 million a year for 150 beds.