Illustration by Drew Bardana

Stealing From the Homeless

When you live on the streets, nothing is safe.

This story was originally published on November 11, 2014, and is being resurfaced as part of the Homeless in Seattle media blitz.

The first theft was the stupidest. In mid-October 2012, two months homeless, I was walking north from Seattle University to find a place to sleep when I stopped at the water fountain in Cal Anderson Park. Hardly anyone was around. I saw only a bicyclist, coming toward me from Nagle Place—a young man, maybe a teenager, with a single pack on his back; obviously a normal, upright, housed citizen. I hadn’t yet found good places to sleep, and I was bone-tired, so I took my own backpack off while drinking. And then forgot to put it back on before walking several paces away.

When I returned to the water fountain, my pack was gone, as was the bicyclist.

It took a few more incidents to drive the point home. Maybe a month later, I experienced my third theft after walking away from my umbrella in the basement of Half Price Books. I had only left it for 10 minutes, but it was gone. The kind folks there blunted that lesson by finding me an abandoned umbrella right away, and not much later practically gave me a backpack, too. So all I’d really lost were things that had been in the old pack: a can opener and a pair of scissors made valuable by age and inheritance; a portable kite; maps and such.

But in between, the second theft was the costliest.

Rain had finally come, and on November 4 I’d just started sleeping in the doorway of American Apparel on Broadway. Normally I stashed my laptop in my storage locker each night, but, behind on library due dates, I’d kept it with me to watch one more DVD, a charming Vietnamese orphan story. In my laptop satchel’s pocket were a few other library discs, as well as some CD-ROMs, a flash drive, and my phone charger. I’d slept with my laptop a few times before, off Broadway, and thought nothing of simply placing the satchel between me and the door.

That night daylight saving time ended. I woke repeatedly, as usual. At the first 2 a.m., my laptop and satchel were beside me; when I woke at 2:30 a.m., an hour and a half later, they were gone. The tiles between me and the rainy sidewalk showed a single watery footprint for a small high-heeled shoe. Months of sleeping there would teach me footprints like that last less than half an hour. My laptop was stolen at bar time of the longest drinking night of the year.

What you need to know about me: Thanks largely to my siblings, I’ve kept that rented storage unit since becoming homeless, and so was able to keep most of my property when I lost my housing. My only addiction is to sugar (not a joke: hypoglycæmia supplies both highs and lows), and homelessness actually helps with my particular mental issues (depression, mostly). So I was able to hold a seasonal job this past winter, and thus have today a laptop to write this story on.

I also have the incredible good fortune to have become homeless at a time when, thanks to the recession, Washington’s food-stamp program didn’t have a time limit, and the continued good fortune that, so far, one hasn’t been reimposed. All in all, I’m extremely wealthy in both money and other resources, as unemployed homeless men go. I’m also probably less sociable with my peers than the average solo homeless person.

Why am I homeless? Several theories exist. One notes that the recession destroyed my livelihood built on temp work; another credits my depression; a third has it that I’m just lazy. Take your pick.

No matter how I ended up here, I still live within two basic stories about the homeless in America that go back a century, one public, one personal. The public one: We are a threat. This is why no city wants its homeless citizens to stay. The personal one: We are threatened. This is why no mother wants her son (let alone daughter) to become homeless. We’ve been identified with thievery just as long, and the explanation seems obvious: We’re such inveterate thieves, we steal from each other too; we’re only threatened because our threats extend even to our fellow homeless.

That isn’t necessarily true.

None of my first three thieves—or at least those I suspect—seems likely to have been homeless: a bicyclist with a single backpack? A Half Price Books customer? Someone in high heels at bar time? The people who took the backpack and umbrella may have imagined they weren’t really stealing, and probably didn’t know they were taking from a homeless man, but the woman or drag queen who left that footprint—she knew what she was doing.

Dozens of studies have investigated the “criminal victimization” of the “new homeless.” For many reasons, those studies’ numbers veer all over the place. But nearly all of them are far higher than those reported by the general public to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) or its international equivalents. Over the period covered by these studies—1983 to 2013, so far—NCVS’s annual rates for theft and for robbery (which is simply theft by force) have fallen dramatically. But for us, the homeless? Of 54 homeless people in Anchorage who were interviewed in 1983, 30 percent had been victims of robbery in the previous six months; in that year’s NCVS, .6 percent—yes, point six—of respondents had experienced violent theft. In a 2013 survey, 57.3 percent of 150 homeless women in Fort Worth had had something stolen in the previous year; in that year’s NCVS, less than 11 percent of those questioned had lost anything to theft or robbery.

The only Seattle numbers available concern homeless youth, aged 13 to 21, in three studies run in the mid-1990s by Ana Mari Cauce, now University of Washington Provost, with YouthCare. The lowest theft number these studies produced is from the last survey, in 1997–1998: 25 percent of the 372 people interviewed had been robbed at least once since becoming homeless, on average less than four years. It takes some contortions to compare this number to NCVS’s annual numbers, especially since younger people in general suffer more crimes. But if you do the comparison, making assumptions at every step that minimize the difference between homeless and housed, you still end up with this: In Seattle in the late 1990s, teens were maybe six times as likely to be mugged if they were homeless.

Few studies ask further about theft; scholars care more about the violence we also suffer disproportionately. But two studies do ask about the identity of the thieves. In that 2013 study of mostly sheltered homeless women, run by Emily Spence-Almaguer, 56.6 percent of the theft victims could identify a culprit who was also homeless; just 6 percent—two of those interviewed—could identify a housed thief. However, in a 2004 study in London, Oxford, and Cambridge, 67 percent of the 305 interviewed, many of whom slept on the streets, had been stolen from in the previous year, and the culprits they could identify included 90 street homeless, versus 72 “members of the public.” We are not the only threat.

Did you know that when a Seattle Public Library item is stolen, they bill the victim? Fact. I spent my first winter on the streets paying off those DVDs. My brother replaced my phone charger within weeks; I hope over the next year to finally finish reconstructing, as best as possible, my disrupted catalogues of my property—ha!—as well as my book log; I may never regain the trove of database and systems-analysis texts on those CD-ROMs.

You could say that the first spate of thefts made me a little defensive. Seattle writer Matt Ruff, in his (pre-Seattle) novel Sewer, Gas & Electric, has one formerly homeless woman character tease another: “You still guard your food when you eat, don’t you? Hunker over it, so no one else can grab the plate. Must be embarrassing for you at big company luncheons, acting like a homeless woman.” But though some postures for eating without furniture do require hunkering, that’s not how I normally see the homeless eat. Indeed, we, or at least I, treasure the freedom to walk away from my stuff, whether in storage or at a library desk. But if we are overprotective—if, in my first year on the street, I learned precisely how to “guard” everything, every night—can you blame us?

So that first winter, no longer able to lose myself in dramas on DVD, I studied protection. I’d first used books as pillows, but this proved hard on the books—and, hey, a backpack pillow is a backpack guarded! Not long after the laptop theft, I got my first sleeping bag, and for a small guy like me, a sleeping bag provides tons of space that thieves don’t want to enter. (Summer’s blankets help much less.) Things too wet, or big, for a backpack or bag—my umbrella and water bottle—could go next to the wall. I’d been wearing my glasses as I slept, but around that time accidentally swept them off an Urban Rest Stop counter, breaking the frame. So I started putting them into a QFC plastic container meant for two slices of cake—the right size, and noisy under pressure (say, if I rolled onto it while sleeping); I put it on top of the bottle and umbrella.

At first I kept my food bag next to the backpack, on the sidewalk side, exposed. Who would steal food from a homeless man? Mind, I was then making friends with another Broadway guy, an old hand there; he warned me about that food bag, and of course, soon enough, he was proven right. The poor schmuck of a thief had absurdly bad timing: I’d been ill, so theft number 4 cost me an infected water bottle and some bagels from a days-ago food bank, gone moldy. But lesson learned: I took to keeping nothing but a large plastic pastry container there, to hold any trash I might find as I reorganized my stuff or generate cleaning the doorway or eating a last bite. Once I had a food bag again, I had to make sure, every night, it wasn’t too full to unload into the backpack; the bag itself, plus the one holding my blanket or sleeping bag, could go under the backpack, folded.

I had been sleeping at American Apparel for some time; people started to notice me. One waitress from up the street took to leaving me food from Dick’s Drive-In. I know this because one rainy night I was up late, waiting for the doorway to dry out, and she came by and told me. I had to confess I’d never seen, much less eaten, a single one of those burgers. She bought me one that night, the only one I’ve had while homeless. I tried to reassure her—“Surely some homeless person got them”—but I’m pretty sure she stopped leaving the food. How many thefts did I miss in my sleep?

Someone else noticed me too. One night that winter I woke around 3 a.m. to a loud discussion among several guys who were lately out of prison. I got pretty scared. Eventually they headed north looking for food, and saw me. Their burly leader wanted to buy my food from me. I actually had extra food that night, but I was cranky from their keeping me up, irked by his assumption I wouldn’t freely share, and more irked when he said he knew I slept there every night. So I refused. He started to leave, but after a few paces north, he came back, snuck his hand in, and took what he’d actually been negotiating over the whole time—my garbage can!

So yes, the standard account is partly true: Just as the studies I’ve cited say, homeless people do steal from each other, lots. And although all three of these thefts I suspect my fellow homeless of were for food, it isn’t limited to that. Early on, I used to spend some time in places where homeless people gather by day—the Urban Rest Stop, Connections—and heard several complaints about cell phones stolen while borrowed or charging.

And yes, we steal from others too. Study after study of homeless youth mentions shoplifting as a major survival strategy, but it isn’t just the kids. In Seattle Municipal Court, where misdemeanor theft is tried, two specialized courts track housing status. The numbers for April through June of this year are telling. In Community Court, 51 percent of the 70 who agreed to participate said they had been homeless, for, on average, more than three years; and 74 percent of the 142 who were invited to participate were up for theft. Meanwhile in Mental Health Court, at least 62 percent of 167 participants were assessed as homeless; and while assault was this group’s leading charge, theft, at 19 percent, was next in line.

Frankly, this just makes sense. Serious scholars agree homelessness results from a game of musical chairs—more and more poor people pursuing less and less affordable housing. So we’re poor, and if people rob banks “ ’cause that’s where the money is,” then we, who need the money, logically should be the robbers.

And then many of us do use drugs. Addictions not served by food stamps or soup kitchens can be expensive—even a pack-a-day cigarette habit costs more than the storage unit that holds all my property in Seattle, and only alcohol, of the addictive drugs, is cheaper. So addictions can spur addicts to steal, as in the recent high-profile car prowler spree chronicled by Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, who was the victim of three homeless addicts allegedly smashing car windows and running off with purses, wallets, and other valuables.

All that said, here’s the sad thing: My three thefts at the hands of my fellow homeless were about food. But most homeless people in Washington qualify for food stamps, which since 2009 and until early 2016, have, in Washington, no time limit. Also, the thieves were on Broadway, near scads of the free meals that Patrick Hutchison wrote about in Seattle Weekly last year (“Navigating Seattle’s Soup-Kitchen Maze,” Nov. 27, 2013). And most of us—yes, even antisocial me—will share food if asked. So food is the last thing a homeless person in Seattle should need to steal.

My protections worked! For a year, nobody stole anything from me. I started sleeping further north on Broadway after a tagger included a picture of a sleeper—me?—in his treatment of American Apparel. A charity event replaced my broken glasses, without which I can’t see much, since my eyes focus less than half a foot from my face. I got back into an old occupation for a while, though not at the rarefied levels that in 2011 got me my first laptop as a signing bonus: This past winter, I did some of your taxes in West Seattle. I even managed to work full-time for the final weeks of tax season; but while this paid for a new laptop, it exhausted me.

So I was too slow when money ran low; plans to make storage rent as a guinea pig for research studies went nowhere; and come July 7, 2014, I was locked out. Now I needed to extend my protections, since I had little room to store more than my laptop in my pack. I started shoving my water bottle and umbrella right up against the wall, and used the space created between them and the backpack to hold a stack of books that I covered with plastic bags (noisy and opaque), weighing them down with my glasses case. Things got even more complicated when I found, for only the second time, all three parts of the best Korean TV drama the Seattle libraries own, available at once. K-dramas had become such a comfort to me, filling so many hours, and depicting the world of work, increasingly alien to me, so much better than Hollywood. I checked them out.

That set the scene for my seventh theft, the worst of all.

It was 1 a.m. on Friday, July 18, when I went to sleep wrapped around my laptop, protected by nothing more than a jacket on top to hide it, while the K-drama boxed sets, worth twice as much as the computer, sat in my backpack. And with all this wealth to choose from, what did the latest thief take? My glasses, of course. My glasses, exposed alone on that stack. My high-prescription glasses. My “glasses case,” that noisy cake container, finally proved itself, if unhelpfully, waking me by scraping on the tiles as the wind blew it around, newly light with my glasses removed, at 2:30 a.m.

Obamacare replaced the prescription, which was inaccessible in my locked storage unit; Sound Eye and Laser and its lensmaker generously replaced my glasses, not covered by Medicaid. During my three-week wait, I had to watch that excellent drama from half a foot away, and missed the season’s outdoor plays and movies. But most of the burden of this theft fell on taxpayers—um, you—and on two private companies.

Who would steal high-prescription glasses? Three theories:

  1. Some homeless guy who also couldn’t pay for glasses wanted the frames.
  2. Some homeless guy saw the cake box, thought he’d found food, and punished me for raising false hopes.
  3. Some housed guy didn’t get any, drank too much, and got mean.

See, it was bar time. Again. And most people on Broadway at bar time are not homeless.

So that’s my story: seven thefts in two years. I think homeless people took all the food, and I think housed people took everything else. Even if true, that’s probably an uncommon ratio. I think so many thefts from the homeless are perpetrated by other homeless because many of us have nothing a housed person wants. Thanks to my storage, I do have some of those things, and I became fair game.

Still, since that glasses theft inspired me to write this story, I’ve heard a lot from my peers. The guy in the doorway next to me a couple nights later? His backpack had been stolen the same night, somewhere else. The courteous veteran, a Seattle native back visiting (not normally homeless), who slept in a doorway this summer? Four times when he’d walked away briefly, he found his few possessions rifled. On August 6, I found a guy sleeping at the corner of Broadway and Harrison whose luggage was too big to use as a pillow. Oops; it lay beside him open and ransacked.

And my friend, the Broadway oldtimer who first warned me to protect my food? One time he walked away from his stuff, maybe half a block, and some guys pulled up in a van, took it all, and drove away again. Don’t believe him? Well, Mike Johnson, who runs the Union Gospel Mission’s men’s shelter, told me they get guys on a regular basis who have had everything stolen. Call him a liar too.

So what can we do about it?

Some become property-carefree; maybe not easy come, but anyway easy go. Problem is, that approach cripples borrowing from libraries, and hardly encourages re-integration into normal American society. But it’s got to be less stressful than the way I live.

Otherwise? In the 2012 book Invisible Victims: Homeless and the Growing Security Gap—the first ever published about the criminal victimization of the homeless—sociologist Laura Huey discusses ways to prevent those crimes, in three categories.

One category is “State-Based Security”: the police. Many homeless people have to avoid this option. “Hello, officer. Yeah, you have outstanding drug warrants on me, and you’ll find my cocaine when you search me, and yeah, I’ve been excluded from this block, but my latest customer, over there with a red backpack and the two big mean-looking friends? He just stole all my money, and I want you to arrest him.” Also, lots of homeless people are outright hostile to police; heck, as a mentally ill homeless man, I give thanks daily that I haven’t found myself in law enforcement’s gunsights.

Nevertheless I reported the bar-time thefts, laptop and glasses, to the Seattle Police Department.

Calling on a weekend night, I got nothing but lost sleep, and finally reported the laptop theft at the precinct in the morning. I submitted the serial number three times over the course of seven weeks before it was finally put into the stolen-laptop database. And when I called the robbery and burglary detectives for some hand-holding, I got instead a half-hour harangue from their secretary. “If you sleep outside, of course your stuff will be stolen,” she yelled.

So calling the glasses theft in on a weekday night, I expected little, and was satisfied that an officer came to me. I thought the thief had probably thrown the glasses away soon after taking them, and that they might be in one of the nearby garbage cans. I couldn’t look without my glasses, so I asked the officer to, not hoping for much. Months later, my old friend on Broadway told me he’d been mystified to see her going down the block opening trash cans and peering inside. She’d actually done as I asked. No, that isn’t heroism, but it’s certainly above and beyond.

SPD spokesman Detective Patrick Michaud proudly told me SPD doesn’t track the housing status of people they deal with: “Everyone should expect the same high standard of police work when they call the police.” Um, maybe. In my limited experience, that “high standard” was met half the time. I’d like to think the police do better with violent crimes, whose victims are more traumatized. But SPD is a human institution, and we’ve recently been hearing that for theft, they really are less reliable for everyone, and not just homeless me.

How much good does reporting thefts do? If we were energetic about it, we’d clog the 911 line with what are mostly non-emergencies. And police departments focus on violence, just as scholars do. Between 2007 and 2011, the police cleared 25.9 percent to 28.7 percent of reported robberies and 18.6 percent to 21.5 percent of thefts nationally. That’s actually an impressive achievement—about a million thefts solved per year—but it’s still not much comfort to most individual victims. Reporting thefts to the police might prevent other thefts, but does little to reverse them.

Another of Huey’s categories, “Security Through Others,” includes protection from shelters and other agencies, as well as the safety provided by romantic or other companions. Shelters are, in fact, safer than the street, and some of the high-tech improvements Huey discusses could be real protections from theft, as she acknowledges. But shelters aren’t foolproof. Remember Emily Spence-Almaguer, the latest to report on theft from homeless people? Well, over 50 percent of the thefts in her study took place at shelters. While shelters are safer than the street, both Huey and I doubt they do a good job of guarding against theft.

Huey and I also agree that companions tend to be ineffective as guardians. I rarely see homeless couples or groups setting watches, for example, and as Huey points out, and as the conversations I overhear often suggest, these people can steal from each other too.

Huey’s remaining category is “Self-Protection Strategies.” Keeping a dog; sleeping by day; hiding one’s sleeping place or storage place; keeping one’s possessions disgusting. (This last doesn’t work. Scholars haven’t looked into it, but I hear nasty shopping carts get ransacked too.) I’ve discussed my own protections throughout this story, and I think they’re a main reason why I’ve gone from six or more thefts in my first year to just one in my second. Huey, considering crime in general and not just theft, has no faith in any self-protections, and I have to concede her point on this larger scale. What will the next angry drunk do when he sees no glasses to steal? None of my protections protect from violence.

The one solution Huey really backs is the same old scholarly plaint: We need housing. Well, duh. But in my 47 years of life, the trend has always been in the other direction. King County’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness expires in a few months. If I’m still here the day after, will you pardon me for wanting some sort of answer in the meantime?

Actually, as regards theft, the plan sort of is on the right track. We do need “doors to lock,” but need they be apartment doors? My storage unit is much of what makes me rich. It didn’t prevent any of my thefts, and wouldn’t prevent some of those I’ve mentioned, but at least if there were widespread storage for us, fewer guys would reach the Union Gospel Mission wholly destitute. For the employed or otherwise funded, paid storage is the obvious answer. For everyone else? Well, lucky us in Seattle: SHARE runs, besides its shelters and tent cities, a storage facility, near downtown. It isn’t big units like rental storage, rather 90 Greyhound-style lockers, of which you can get no more than two. And for reasons beyond SHARE’s control, the facility is open for only two morning hours per day, which means you can’t pick up work tools or clothes in the morning and then stash them in the evening. Also, in lieu of rent, you have to work one morning a month at the storage facility, and attend one Sunday meeting per month. (At minimum wage, given the conditions, that seems a reasonable rent.) It isn’t a solution for everyone, but if you need a place to stow an interview suit for that far-off day, or identification and such, it’s something.

Last February, Seattle City Council Members Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell pitched an expansion of Seattle’s lockers for the homeless, arguing that sleeping bags are uncool at job interviews. After plenty of research, Bagshaw wanted to start with an unfunded pilot project. So in mid-October, as I was finishing this story, Union Gospel Mission’s men’s shelter took delivery of 24 lockers. They plan to make them accessible twice per day (for that sleeping-bag-free job interview)—but they’re limited to residents of the men’s shelter, and not even available to all of them—there is currently one locker for every 10 beds UGM offers. It’s a start, but only a start. I hope much more follows, and I hope it isn’t all tightly tied to other services, requiring us to follow rules for the privilege of securing some of our belongings. I’d hate to see any more rifled luggage. I’d love to see the shopping-cart guys set free.

But it won’t change the big picture. Through theft, yes, we are a threat and you are threatened. But also, yes, we are threatened and you are a threat. Thieves have always focused on the poor, and we have to learn to live with it. In the 1990s, some sociologists thought we might do so, before they closed ranks clucking about our traumas; one set, though embarrassed ever since, actually called crime “another momentary hassle” to us. I’ve spent three months researching and writing about that momentary hassle, not because I think it can be fixed, and certainly not because I think it’s our biggest problem, but because it’s our most oxymoronic. “Well, I robs bums ’cause that’s where the money ain’t.” It’s at once a preposterous joke and a study in human nature. Which is now finished, so you should turn the page, and I should go back to watching Korean dramas and reading want ads, through my new glasses, on my new laptop.

news@seattleweekly.com


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