Hard Times, Mean Streets and Cruel Injustices

This is the second part of a three-part series on Sacramento’s homeless: the hard times, mean streets and cruel injustices they endure.  I am a Mercy Pedaler who knows a lot about street crime and justice.  Prior to retirement, I was a prosecutor and former Deputy Executive Director of the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA).  For more than 10 years I taught junior college courses in Criminology and Social Problems to maximum security prisoners.  For the past two years I have walked Sacramento streets and alleys documenting in my photography and journalism what I have seen and learned.  The first article in this series, Hard Times can be found at https://mercypedalers.com/hard-times-mean-streets-cruel-injustices/

Part 2:  Mean Streets

You are never safe when you are out in the open.

                                                                                    -Homeless man

I came across David, the homeless man in the photo above, early in the morning sitting on a street corner in Sacramento’s Midtown.  It appeared that he had been severely beaten about the face.  He was crying and asking for help.  His pleas were ignored by several passersby.  I called 911.  The fire department responded and he was transported to a local emergency room.  David was hospitalized for several weeks.

There is no safe place in Sacramento for those living on the streets.  On any given night, 3,500 people live in squalor, many of them sleeping on sidewalks and park benches, in cars or under bridges, not only in tent camps along the American and Sacramento Rivers but also in outlying neighborhoods.  Life on the streets is about survival.  As one homeless person puts it, “You’re always looking over your shoulders. You can’t trust anyone.”

Faced with a growing homeless population and skyrocketing housing costs, the City of Sacramento this Fall will most likely declare an “emergency shelter crisis” that in turn will bring millions of dollars in state money to fund structures for hundreds of people now living on the streets.  An existing ordinance makes it illegal for homeless people to camp in the city.

Sacramento plans to use the state money primarily to erect large tent-like “Sprung Structures” to house the homeless. In order to receive the money, Sacramento under the new state law must declare an “emergency shelter crisis”, meaning that a significant number of residents are without housing and that the situation represents a health and safety threat.  Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg asserts that the tent shelters will help lower the city’s crime rate.  Sister Libby Fernandez, founder of Mercy Pedalers, and Loaves & Fishes’ Joan Burke believe that the Sprung Structures will go a long way toward getting people to a safe place, and off the streets. 

There is much “fake” news about homelessness and criminality. Myths about criminality are frequently used to demonize the homeless.  For example, in Sacramento there is strong resistance to the Sprung Structure plan because many believe homeless shelters generate crime, making neighborhoods unsafe and disorderly.  No doubt there is a strong link between homelessness and criminality, but the “homeless crime problem” is not what many people think.  One thing for sure is that we can’t arrest our way out of homelessness.

For the homeless police contact is inevitable.  In 2015, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness reported:

The sad truth is that for too many people, the experience of homelessness involves police encounters, lockups, courts, or jail and prison cells as much as it does shelter beds. Some people are caught in a revolving door between the streets or shelters and jails, not to mention other institutional settings. In fact, our national data shows that the number of Americans caught on this cycle may number in the tens of thousands. Of the 11 million people detained or incarcerated in jails every year, as many as 15 percent report having been homeless. Roughly 48,000 people entering shelters every year are coming nearly directly from prisons or jails. Even many Veterans entering HUD-VASH report having recent experiences of incarceration.” See United States Interagency Council on Homelessness Deputy Director Richard Cho, “We can break the cycle of homelessness and criminal justice system involvement” (2015) at https://www.usich.gov/news/we-can-break-the-cycle-of-homelessness-and-criminal-justice-system-involvem

Homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse and crime are inextricably linked.  Studies vary but there is a common thread: the number of mentally ill individuals in jail is substantial, and that many are homeless individuals arrested for minor crimes like disorderly conduct, public intoxication, petty shoplifting, disturbing the peace, etc.  As noted above, approximately 15% of jail inmates had been homeless in the year prior to their incarceration and 54% of homeless individuals report spending time in a correctional facility at some point in their lives. In addition, those experiencing homelessness are found to be arrested more often, incarcerated longer, and re-arrested at higher rates than people with stable housing.  Homelessness contributes to the risk for incarceration, and incarceration contributes to higher risks of homelessness.  See National Health Care For The Homeless Council, Criminal Justice, Homelessness & Health (2011) at http://www.nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/CriminalJustice2011_final.pdf

California’s homeless population jumped nearly 14% from 2016 to 2017.   However, this increase in the state’s homeless population appears to have had little, if any, impact on crime. 

In 2014, California voter’s passed Proposition 47 which reduced penalties for drug and property crimes.  The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reported recently (June 2018) that they found no evidence that violent crime increased as a result of Proposition 47.  Larcenies did increase about 9% by 2016.  However, thefts from motor vehicles accounted for about three-quarters of the increase. San Francisco alone recorded more than 30,000 auto burglaries last year, which authorities largely blamed on gangs. The PPIC report notes that California’s crime rates “remain comparable to the low rates observed in the 1960s, despite California’s more recent drastic reductions in its prison population,” and dramatic increase in homelessness. See “The Impact of Proposition 47 on Crime and Recidivism” (June, 2018) at http://www.ppic.org/publication/the-impact-of-proposition-47-on-crime-and-recidivism/

The state’s prison population dropped from 135,000 in 2014 to just under 120,000 in 2016, and there were 40,000 fewer felony convictions in the state.  The average cost of housing California prisoners is $47,000 a year for those who committed non-violent and non-serious crimes. (As noted in the first part of this series, Hard Times, “Between shelters and emergency rooms and jails, it costs taxpayers about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets.”) The resulting Proposition 47 savings puts about $100 million a year into city and county programs throughout the state specifically designed to treat, house and retrain those considered high-risk potential offenders.  Whether the state’s homeless are benefiting from these local programs is not known.

The homeless do commit property crimes, but it isn’t always for economic gain.  In Britain for example, experts believe 20% of “rough sleepers” (people who are homeless) have committed a crime such as prostitution, shoplifting, or theft.  The conclusion, however, is that these crimes are usually acts of survival or ways for people to get off the streets.  Nearly 30% admitted to committing a “minor crime such as shoplifting or anti-social behavior” in the hope of being taken into custody for the night.  See “A fifth of all homeless people have committed a crime to get off the streets,” The Guardian (December, 2010) at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/dec/23/homeless-committing-crimes-for-shelter

Living on the streets is dangerous. The homeless are far more likely to be victims of violent assault, abuse and intimidation, compared to the general public.  According to an article published in the New York Times in 2009, nearly one-third of homeless youth end up participating in survival sex during their time on the streets. While survival sex also entails exchanging their bodies for drugs and alcohol, youths are most frequently seeking shelter. After leaving home, they scramble to find abandoned buildings, riverbanks, underpasses, and rooftops to sleep at night. When their situations become desperate enough, runaways can end up having sex with someone in exchange for a place to stay, however brief.   On the streets the human body often is a main form of currency.  See Ian Urbina, “For Runaways, Sex Buys Survival” New York Times (October 26, 2009) at https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/27/us/27runaways.html?pagewanted=all

A 2016 survey revealed the level of violence and intimidation homeless people face in England and Wales.

  • More than one in three have been deliberately hit, kicked, or experienced some other form of violence while homeless.
  • Over one in three (34%) have had things thrown at them.
  • Almost one in 10 (9%) have been urinated on while homeless.
  • More than one in 20 (7%) have been the victim of a sexual assault.
  • Almost half (48%) have been intimidated or threatened with violence whilst homeless.
  • Six in 10 (59%) have been verbally abused or harassed.  See “Crisis report reveals shocking dangers of being homeless) The Guardian (December 22, 2016) at https://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2016/dec/23/homeless-crisis-report-attack-violence-sleeping-rough

The above is consistent with my observations as a Mercy Pedaler and walking Sacramento city streets the past two years. The reality is that the homeless are more likely to be victims rather than the perpetrators of crime. Homeless crime is hard to track because the police do not log crimes based on the housing status of the victims.   To make matters worse, much of homeless crime is homeless-on-homeless crime.  Homeless-on-homeless crime is often unreported. Many homeless victims will not report a crime or incident to the police because they believe the police will not do anything. The consequences for “snitching” or reporting a crime to the police can be severe. 

Theft is a pervasive problem among the homeless.  Overall more than half of rough sleepers (51%) reported having had things stolen from them when sleeping on the streets. In California, bike theft is a crime problem that impacts both the public and homeless.

The National Bike Registry estimates that 1.5 million bikes are stolen each year.  In Sacramento and virtually every California city, bicycle theft has almost become a crime without consequence. So widespread is bike theft that it is treated less as a problem  and more like one of the costs of urban life. Thieves can quickly cut locks on a target that serves as its own getaway vehicle, sell their ill-gotten goods to fences for pennies on the dollar.  Bike thieves are rarely busted.

In Sacramento more than 1,000 bike thefts are reported annually.    However, there are only estimates for the number of unreported bike thefts.  Accurate data on bike thefts are hard to come by. The FBI reported 210,905 bike thefts in the U.S. in 2014, a number that likely severely undercounts the true scope of the problem.  The reality, depending on where you live, is that approximately 50% of active bicyclists will have their bike stolen.  Less than 40% percent of riders report bike theft,  Less than 3% of stolen bikes are recovered.  According to the National Bike Registry and FBI, $350 million in bicycles are stolen in the United States each year. See https://www.nationalbikeregistry.com/crime.html

Frequently one sees or hears news about homeless bike thieves and/or the discovery of  homeless bicycle chop shops. In San Francisco it is estimated that more than 3,800 bikes valued above $5 million were stolen in 2016. In 2017, San Francisco passed a bicycle “chop shop” ordinance aimed at the homeless that prohibits anyone from storing or selling five or more complete bikes, a single bike frame with its gear or brake cables cut, three or more bikes with missing parts — like handlebars, seats, chains and pedals — or five or more individual bicycle parts. Anyone deemed to be operating a bicycle chop shop would be subject to a notice of violation, but the ordinance does not carry any citation fee or fine.

Within the drug trade, stolen bicycles are so common they can almost be used as currency. On the streets, the value of a stolen bicycle is approximately 5-10% of the bicycle’s original retail value, with an inverse relationship between value and percentage worth on the street. According to  industry insiders, the percentage goes up as the value goes down; a bicycle that sells for $200 new will sell for $20 on the street when stolen, and a new $2500 bike will sell for as low as $125. In most U.S. cities, bicycle-theft rings are organized to steal bikes and sell them on the street, at flea markets, and to receivers of stolen goods, i.e. fences.  See Tom Babin, “Why are cities allowing bicycle theft to go virtually unpunished?” Los Angeles Times (April 21, 2017) at http://www.latimes.com/opinion/livable-city/la-ol-bicycle-theft-20170421-story.html

Many of Sacramento’s homeless possess bicycles.  For the homeless, the bicycle is a primary mode of transportation. It is also often a lifeline for those in need.  A bike can get a homeless person to a job, the store, a shelter or Loaves & Fishes for a hot breakfast or lunch, showers, bathrooms and/or medical services. Bicycling beats walking. It expands the travel area.

Although there are no crime statistics for bike theft among the homeless, it is believed bike theft is far greater for the homeless than it the general population.  The homeless rarely if ever report bike theft.  It is common for homeless cyclists to have their bikes stolen more than once, even multiple times.


One recent study supports Mayor Steinberg’s position that the proposed Sprung Structures will reduce crime rates.   The 2018 study of two West Coast cities, Portland and Seattle, found crime is likelier to go down than up in neighborhoods that host city -sanctioned homeless villages or encampments.  Eleven homeless villages in the two cities were surveyed, crime in a broad range of categories decreased in 5 surrounding neighborhood after they were established. In four cases, any change was small, within single digits. In two, crime increased. 

The study’s data is “consistent with the position that homeless villages are not generators of crime”, said Kenneth Leon, a criminologist at George Washington University, and could be part of a “crime prevention ecosystem”.  The numbers show “there’s no evidence homeless encampments add to crime”, wrote Mike Males, senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, calling the figures “an important finding”.  See “No link between homeless villages and crime rates,” The Guardian (May 23, 2018) at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/23/homeless-villages-crime-rate-seattle-portland

Next:  Part 3:  Cruel Injustices