Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU student helps disconnect dots between crime and homelessness

When Denver enacted a new law against panhandling, Megan Gall decided to test it with new technology.

Gall, a master’s candidate in Geographic Information Science (GIS) from Charleston, W.Va., became one of the first researchers in the U.S. to use computer-assisted mapping to evaluate the effectiveness of anti-panhandling laws.

Working together with Steven Hick, the director of GIS at DU and of the Geographic Technology Applications Center, Gall found that increasingly popular panhandling ordinances like Denver’s may need to be reconsidered.

The law

Since January 2006, Denver has prohibited panhandling surrounding the 16th Street pedestrian mall. The reasoning behind the law is that it will encourage the homeless to leave the area, thereby decreasing crime and promoting business, Hick explains.

“This is a new trend,” Gall says. “These types of ordinances are happening city-, state- and nationwide. But in academia, there’s not that much research about them.”

So Hick and Gall applied for a Public Good Grant from DU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning— a department dedicated to helping students and staff serve their communities.

They started working closely with the Denver Police Department’s crime analysts. Hick and Gall identified 14 panhandling hot spots near the pedestrian mall. Applying the skills and knowledge she gained in the classroom, Gall created detailed, computer-generated maps. Her maps showed all the crimes committed in the hot spots in 2005 — before the panhandling law.

Then she created a map of all the crimes committed in the same places in 2006. If the logic behind the law was sound, crime should have gone down after the panhandling law was enacted.

The results

Gall’s analysis showed that there was no significant difference between crime rates before and after the ordinance passed. Displacing the homeless doesn’t seem to reduce crime.

Gall sees the results as evidence that laws need to be crafted more carefully. “The base question is, are we fixing things at a systemic level?” she says. “And if we’re not, then we’re not fixing the problem — we’re applying a band-aid.”

Mapping out the future

Hick and Gall say this research only scratches the surface of what GIS can offer the fight against homelessness.

Hick, who’s been working with the Denver Police and community groups for years, says mapping data could measure the effectiveness of outreach programs and track how the homeless population shifts in reaction to new laws, shelter availability and other issues.

To show local outreach organizations what GIS can do for them, Hick and Gall recently invited people from local community groups to visit DU’s GIS lab for a mapping demonstration. And this summer, Hick will help organize the most detailed on-the-street survey of homelessness Denver has ever seen.

“I’m hoping GIS will be an important factor in these programs,” Hick says. “It has a lot to offer.”


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