[Hpn] Street life a dangerous existence;Galveston County Daily News;7/1/01
Morgan W. Brown
Sun, 01 Jul 2001 19:31:17 -0400
Sunday, July 1, 2001
Galveston County Daily News <http://galvestondailynews.com>
Homeless and helpless
Ricky White was attacked and badly beaten in the alley behind the 2800 block
of Broadway a few weeks ago.
Street life a dangerous existence
By Carter Thompson <Carter.Thompson@galvnews.com>
The Daily News
Published July 01, 2001
GALVESTON — It’s 8 a.m., on a Saturday in June. Torrential rains have
flooded the city.
Dr. F.M. Zaunbrecher and his wife, Michelle, pull into the parking lot of an
East End church in their minivan packed with medical supplies to treat the
bumps, bruises and infections of Galveston’s homeless population.
Over the next hour, the Zaunbrechers — founders of the Luke Society, a
medical ministry — treat about 40 people over the din of hymns and sermons
fervently delivered by volunteers from a local Baptist church. The
soft-spoken F.M. Zaunbrecher, the ministry’s medical director, has to strain
to hear and be heard by the people he is treating.
Standing a few spots back in line is Joe, a homeless man in his mid-50s who
provided only his first name.
Joe’s got a black eye and his blood tints the whites of his eye. He says a
group of young men who tried to rob him outside a burger joint a week
earlier had knocked him to the ground with a blow to the back of his head
and kicked him in the face.
Zaunbrecher examines Joe and gives him some pain relievers. Joe grabs a cup
of coffee and talks to some friends before disappearing back into the rainy
Joe’s story is a common one, say social workers and homeless advocates, made
all the more senseless because the predators had to have known their victim
had, at most, a few bucks in his pockets.
They say the problem is getting worse. Island police say it’s not. There’s
also a lack on consensus over who is committing these crimes — other
homeless people or punks, gangs or even teen-agers looking to take out
aggression on an easy target.
All the disagreement is understandable given that homeless people — for
reasons including mental illness, fear of retaliation or criminal pasts of
their own — are notorious for not reporting crimes against them.
Prosecution of those that are reported can be difficult. Without addresses
and phone numbers, victims and witnesses can disappear into the gray just
A HATE CRIME?
The muggings, murders and rapes on the streets across the country have
prompted advocates to lobby lawmakers to add the homeless to the minority
groups protected under federal hate crimes law.
The people in Galveston who help the homeless talk of another frightening
trend on the streets.
Many of the victims share some common traits, said Ted Hanley. As executive
director of the Jesse Tree, a hub for social services in the county, Hanley
is as familiar with Galveston’s homeless population as anyone.
Many victims are passive and retreating, not prone to aggressive
panhandling, drug use or even extraneous human contact, said Hanley.
Some suffer from mental illnesses, others have learning disabilities — and
are more vulnerable because of them.
Ricky White, who has lived on the streets on and off for the last 15 years,
became a victim last month for the first time.
White said several teen-agers stalked him as he walked down an alley near
28th Street and Broadway. He noticed them just before they pounced and hit
him in the back of the head with a hard object.
“They didn’t get to take nothing because I didn’t have nothing,” he said. “I
had change, but I guess it wasn’t worth taking.”
White, 45, said he woke up about 15 minutes later and walked to the
University of Texas Medical Branch. Doctors eventually had to perform
surgery to remove a blood clot from inside his skull.
“The level of cruelty in beating someone like this is pretty scary,” said
The case is out of the ordinary in that there is a report on file with the
Galveston Police Department because UTMB staff summoned police to the
emergency room when White stumbled in.
Other crimes go unreported. Hanley said a homeless man he had never seen
showed up at one of medical musters in early June. The man claimed to have
been attacked just as White had and was bleeding from his ears — a possible
sign of a serious head injury — and also was sent to UTMB.
Police have no report on the assault. Hanley doesn’t know what happened to
the man. He hasn’t seen him since.
Days earlier, an amputee leaving the hospital also was ambushed on
Harborside Drive. The 39-year-old Mexican national was not injured in the
mugging and the two assailants have not been caught.
Police said they do not believe there is one person or group committing
Police Chief Robert Pierce said an ambush from the rear was a preferred
tactic because it increased an attacker’s chance of success and diminished
his or her risk of being injured in the process.
FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS
The reasons offered as to why homeless people don’t report crimes are as
varied as the ills that put people on the street in the first place.
There’s mental illness, disorders and substance abuse that make many
homeless victims unable to communicate with police or unwilling to entangle
themselves in a system they fear will not deliver justice, say social
Pierce offered other possibilities.
They may have perceived frustration from police officers who tried to get
their addresses or phone numbers when they reported a previous crime. The
victims may avoid police because they have warrants for their own arrest.
The occasional assault for many is part of survival-of-the-fittest rules of
the street, where the victims will have to wander unprotected after they
file reports, say police and advocates.
White and Joe don’t talk about police investigations. They just don’t seem
to give their assaults the concern that most people would show if their car
had been burglarized.
“If you don’t have that high opinion of yourself, maybe it’s not a big deal,
it’s just the way life is,” said Pierce.
RAPE ON THE STREETS
The reporting shortcomings that make regular assaults against the homeless
difficult to track — if broad reporting trends hold true — render the number
of sexual assaults a downright mystery.
What’s absent in police reports and courtrooms can be found in abundance in
anecdotes told by social workers and street ministries.
“From what I understand from women, it is the No. 1 crime,” said Richard
Troxell, an Austin advocate for the homeless.
Troxell is president of House the Homeless, director of Legal Aid for the
Homeless and a member of the board of directors of the National Coalition
for the Homeless. He also leads Universal Living Wage, a campaign to raise
the minimum wage to a level that anyone working 40 hours a week could afford
a place to live.
It was common for homeless women to seek the protection of a man, providing
sexual favors in return, said Troxell. It’s a survival tactic that he argued
was still sexual assault.
Estimates for sexual assault reporting rates among the general public vary
from source to source. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated
that in 2000 only one out of every two victims reported the crime. The
Women’s Crisis Center of Galveston County believes only one out of 10 sexual
assaults are reported to the authorities.
For victims who are homeless, the statistic must be lower, said Linda
Telfah, client services coordinator for the center.
“We probably don’t know the magnitude of the problem,” she said.
Telfah related the story of a homeless woman who recently passed through the
center’s shelter after trying to escape an abusive partner. As the woman was
leaving, a shelter worker asked whether she wanted to take a basket of food.
The woman instead asked for Vasoline to reduce the physical pain of future
sexual assaults. That scene — at the shelter’s exit — was the first time the
woman revealed she had been raped on the streets, said Telfah.
“It’s like they understand it’s something that’s going to happen,” she said.
Victims of sexually assault do show up in the line of injured that the
Zaunbrecher’s treat each Saturday morning, they say. Some explain their
injuries; others will not.
“They live on the street so they are prey to any predator,” said Dr.
Zaunbrecher. “They’re street wise and know how to fight but they get pretty
beaten up when the sun goes down.”
Locally at least, police and social workers agree that it’s more common for
the homeless to fall prey to other homeless than to those higher up the
Wolves run with the lambs among a local homeless population estimated at
Hanley and the Zaunbrechers say they know they have clients who are violent
The national advocates, including Troxell, say a more disturbing trend has
developed over the past two years. Increasingly, the homeless are targets of
gang initiations, young punk aggression and violence at the hands of college
students and even police, he said.
The Washington, D.C.-based homeless coalition for the past two years has
compiled reports of violence against the homeless by people not living on
the streets. Included in the 92 homeless deaths are shootings by police,
beatings administered by gang members and victims being set on fire.
The study is part of a case the coalition is making to the U.S. Department
of Justice to undertake its own study.
The federal study, advocates contend, would reveal a trend of violence
against the homeless large enough to warrant additional punishment now meted
out for crimes motivated by the victim’s race, religion or sexual
orientation. The Justice Department’s findings would bring additional
credibility to the effort to amend federal hate crimes legislation,
coalition officials say.
The crimes are on the rise at the same time cities are enacting ordinances
against camping and resting on sidewalks aimed driving the homeless away or
giving police the means to arrest them, said Troxell.
“What causes these crimes is tone setting,” he said. “We have a rash of
ordinances leveled against minimum-wage workers who become homeless that
criminalizes their condition and makes their condition illegal.
They’re characterized not even as second-class citizens. It is much the way
Hitler did it in the World War II era.”
Galveston City Council earlier this year had considered an ordinance
outlawing panhandling. The proposal lost steam.
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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