Tent city doesn't seem to affect crime rates

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Crime reports fluctuate, tent city or not
Living with a tent city almost in her back yard for two months had its trying moments for Sherry Scheline and her foster children.

There was, for instance, the day a homeless camper reached over the fence to pour beer into the mouth of her Labrador retriever, Jamoki.

But despite a few such lapses, Scheline found most of the campers to be considerate enough neighbors whom she would welcome back to the Haller Lake neighborhood of Seattle.

During the four years that Tent City 3 has roved from one neighborhood to another in Seattle and a few suburban cities, there have been occasional complaints about drinking in public, panhandling and shoplifting.

But residents, police and crime statistics suggest the homeless encampment has not created a crime wave anywhere it has gone. Neighbors' reactions range from grudging acceptance to outright enthusiasm.

Questions about possible crime or other antisocial behavior from homeless encampments have taken on new urgency with the opening of Tent City 4 this week at St. Brendan Catholic Church in Bothell.

Originally scheduled to open on county land outside Bothell, the tent city was moved in response to legal challenges.

Crime reports analyzed

Neighborhoods surrounding tent-city sites have not seen increases in the level of reported crime, according to a Seattle Times analysis of Seattle Police Department incident reports. The Times examined three Seattle tent-city sites where the group stayed for a total of 12 months from 2000 to 2002.

The longest stay for the group — six months in 2000 — was at Beacon Hill's El Centro de la Raza, a Latino advocacy organization. During those six months, the neighborhood around the site reported about 12 crimes per month. A year later, when the tent city was no longer there, the El Centro area had 13 incidents each month.

Auto theft was the most common crime reported for both periods. Next came car-prowling incidents, with six reported during the tent city's stay. A year later, there were eight during the six months. There were six property-damage reports in 2000 and four the next year.

At the other sites — Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard and Haller Lake United Methodist Church — Tent City 3 stayed twice at each church for six weeks at a time. Both churches are in relatively low-crime areas with about five to eight crimes reported per month in the surrounding neighborhoods — levels that remained constant before, during and after the homeless group's stays.

Police did not provide names on the incident reports, so it could not be determined if tent-city residents were involved. But in all three locations, the types of crimes typically reported in these neighborhoods were similar to those reported during the campers' stay.

Police keep close watch

When a tent city opened at the Shoreline Free Methodist Church in Shoreline, police there kept a close eye on the campers. They were involved in 10 to 14 calls to police during that two-month period, most frequently when the camp asked for an officer to stand by while someone was evicted for breaking camp rules.

One camper was arrested on a material-witness warrant. Neighbors called police to complain about litter, unknown people waiting at a bus stop and someone — not necessarily a camper — trying to bum a cigarette off a 13-year-old.

The Shoreline tent city generated no more police calls than would be expected from an apartment complex with 100 residents, said Shoreline police Capt. Carl Cole.

When the King County Jail director, Larry Mayes, asked police in Seattle, Burien, Tukwila and Shoreline about their experience with tent cities, he said, "The story is basically the same at each jurisdiction. The data doesn't indicate any increase in crime or public-safety issues or calls for service."

When campers pitched tents in the parking lot of El Centro in 2000, one angry woman blamed the tent city for a panhandler who slammed her car door. A grocery owner claimed campers were pilfering from his shelves.

But when the tent city returned last fall, said El Centro Executive Director Roberto Maestas, "I don't believe we received a single complaint."

"I think they've been great neighbors," said Allan DeSuler, whose home is across the street from the two tent cities at El Centro. "They weren't loud, they weren't drinking, they weren't drugging. I felt more secure on a summer night with them being across the street than I did some nights being out in downtown Seattle."

Violators evicted

Tent-city campers are subject to expulsion if they violate a code of conduct that prohibits drug or alcohol use, weapons or violence, abusive language, loitering and disturbing neighbors.

Two weeks ago, a camper from the tent city at Lake City Christian Church was permanently banished when he was caught stealing steaks from a grocery. Last week, a man was expelled after The Times reported his comment that he had been drinking earlier outside a convenience store.

Tent City 3 executive-committee member Jeff Roderick said campers are constantly on the lookout for wrongdoing that should be reported to the police and assign two residents to security duties 24 hours a day.

"We report anything we see," he said. "If we don't, it's going to reflect on us. If there's a kid that tries to break into the house next door, we're going to be blamed."

Two Haller Lake merchants said there was an upsurge in littering of beer cans and urinating on buildings, and one said there was a modest increase in shoplifting during a recent encampment. The tent city's litter patrol picked up the empty cans every morning.

Larry Jennings, manager of a Texaco gas station and garage, said students walking to Ingraham High School cause a much greater litter problem — and don't send out patrols to pick up the mess.

"We had a gal out here who looked like she was prostituting," Jennings said. He followed her back to the tent city and reported the incident to the church. He never saw the woman on the street again.

"It's not all of them," said a convenience-store employee about the drinking, littering and shoplifting he attributed to tent-city residents. He asked to remain anonymous. "It's probably five or 10 out of 50. We can't act like it was nothing, but it was not all that bad."

Michael Ostrogorsky, co-manager of GreenWing Gardens and Parrot Cafe in Haller Lake, said he misses the litter patrols that cleaned up the neighborhood each morning. "They picked up everybody's trash, whether it was theirs or not. I was actually sorry to see them go," Ostrogorsky said.

Camper apologizes

The tent city was a more intimate experience for Sherry Scheline, with tents brushing against her low chain-link fence.

When a camper gave beer to her dog, Jamoki, she scolded, "I thought you weren't allowed alcohol."

"He said, 'We're not — Shhh!' " She told a church worker about the incident the next day and the camper apologized.

Campers typically asked permission before approaching her dog. Scheline and her daughters gave flashlights, blankets, hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts and other food to the campers.

When the camp pulled up stakes with the help of volunteers from Lakeside School, they left the church parking lot immaculate. And they gave Jamoki two gifts: a large bag of food and a box of biscuits.

"Everybody expects me to say how miserable it was" having tent city there, Scheline says. "Everybody thinks I should protest it."

She says she wouldn't mind having them back, but "I would not want them back tomorrow."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com