Violence Is Becoming a Threat for Homeless

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@idirect.com)
Thu, 23 Dec 1999 07:49:33 -0500


December 23, 1999 The New York Times

Violence Is Becoming a Threat for Homeless
By EVELYN NIEVES

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 22 -- In Denver, five were pummeled to death and two 
more beheaded. In Richmond, Va., one was beaten, stabbed and beheaded, his 
head then carried nearly a mile and placed for display on a footbridge. In 
Seattle, one was stabbed 18 times, another beaten bloody and then stabbed.

There were others. One in Dallas, pelted with bullets from a 12-gauge 
shotgun for rummaging through trash. One in Chico, Calif., beaten to death 
for begging for spare change. Three in Portland, Ore., strangled for who 
knows what.

They were all homeless people killed over the last year. And these were 
just the killings that made the news. Exactly how many homeless people have 
been victims of savage attacks is unknown. Police departments do not 
tabulate crimes against homeless people, and in many cases, such as several 
beatings that have frightened the large homeless population here, those who 
survive attacks often do not report them.

What appears certain, advocates for the homeless say, is that living on the 
streets is becoming more dangerous. In the last few years, police 
departments across the country have reported more frequent, more vicious 
attacks on those who are homeless. Nearly always, the victims are ambushed 
as they sleep. Nearly as often, the suspects, who are not always caught, 
are described as young men who appear to attack for no reason. In some 
cases, suspects call it "bum-bashing" or "troll-busting," police and 
advocates for the homeless say.

Attacks against homeless people rarely get attention, but nationally, 
violence against people who are unsheltered is becoming so common that the 
National Coalition for the Homeless is asking Congress to consider 
"homeless people" as a maligned minority, or protected class, in drafting 
any new legislation against hate crimes.

"There have always been isolated instances of homeless people being set on 
fire," said Michael Stoops, a community organizer for the National 
Coalition. "But what we're seeing now is a trend. And what's most 
disturbing is that the likely suspects continue to be young people."

Based on news reports, the coalition has counted 29 homeless people who 
were killed in 1999 in 11 cities, from San Francisco to Richmond, Va. It 
listed six others who barely survived attacks. The youngest suspects in 
these cases were 14 years old, and most were under 21.

No one can say for sure why young people in particular seem to be attacking 
homeless people in increasing numbers. But looking at arrests in cases of 
violence against homeless people over several years, by far the majority of 
the suspects were young teenagers, or even pre-teenage boys, who bragged 
about the attacks afterward.

In Seattle, for example, a 14-year-old middle school student was convicted 
in March in the death of a 50-year-old homeless man. The youth struck the 
victim repeatedly with a skateboard, robbed him, then stabbed him to death 
with a pocket knife. He was caught a week later, when witnesses told police 
he had been boasting about killing a "bum." In that same city, three 
teenagers were charged in August with the murder of a 46-year-old homeless 
man as he tried to sleep beneath an interstate overpass. Prosecutors said 
that one told friends, "Let's just say there's one less bum on the face of 
the Earth."

John Urquhart, a spokesman for the King County sheriff's office, which 
covers Seattle, said he believed that the homeless were singled out 
probably because they are accessible, anonymous and stigmatized as 
"throwaways of society."

Indeed, many advocates for the homeless blame increasing crackdowns on 
homeless people for sitting, sleeping or lying in public spaces as a 
significant factor in the increased attacks. In Chicago, a homeless man was 
doused with a flammable chemical and set aflame as he slept on a park bench 
in July. He suffered third-degree burns over 20 percent of his body. John 
Donahue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless,

said that he had noticed more of these kinds of attacks with the increased 
gentrification of the city, the fencing of lower Wacker Drive, where an 
encampment of homeless people had lived undisturbed for years, and the 
increased police enforcement of laws designed to keep people off the streets.

"It's the underpinning of these hate crimes," he said. "It legitimizes them 
because these people don't count. These people are criminals for being poor 
-- that's what the official position is saying about these people."

Mr. Stoops of the National Coalition said that when he visited high schools 
and asked students what they thought about homeless people, they often 
called them bums and drunks who were too lazy to work. "We're obviously 
sending a message to our young people that homeless people are not worthy 
of their respect," he said.

In Denver, where the only suspects in a spate of seven slayings since 
September are a 16-year-old, an 18-year-old and a 20-year-old charged with 
murder for the death of one victim (and accused of the nonfatal beatings of 
five other homeless people), police are investigating talk on the streets 
that a pack of young men has been picking on homeless people for thrills. 
In the only case so far with a witness, police said that someone reported 
several juvenile men a homeless man in a downtown alley.

The perpetrators, said Lt. Judith Will of the Denver Police Department, 
"may get a sort of high or thrill by beating up people, and homeless are 
such an easy target."

There are, of course, instances where homeless people are killed simply 
because they provide convenient targets for a deranged person. Such was the 
case in San Francisco last year, when a man who believed he was a vampire 
slashed the throats of four homeless people, one fatally, and then drank 
their blood. In other cases, as one in San Francisco earlier this year 
where a homeless man standing on a corner was killed by a bullet meant for 
someone else, the victim is a bystander. And because many people on the 
streets are mentally ill or drug addicted or both, they are easier to 
victimize and harder to help, police say, since they are often unable to 
describe the time and place of their attacks or their attackers.

In some cases, police say that they can find no evidence of attacks. In 
Rapid City, S. D., eight homeless men have drowned in a trout stream in 
less than two years, including three this year. The Rapid City Police 
Department initially considered the cases accidental drownings because the 
men all had high blood alcohol levels. But homeless men have insisted that 
the victims, six of whom were American Indians, had actually been pushed 
into the stream by racist white youths while the victims lay passed out 
from alcohol. Chief Tom Hennies of the Rapid City police said that the 
department, with help from state and federal law-enforcement officials, was 
now considering the drownings possible homicides, "even though we don't 
have a shred of physical proof."

In Anchorage, where three homeless people were killed this year, at least a 
dozen older, homeless men have said they were attacked by bands of 
marauding youths. But they were not able to provide concrete details of the 
crimes or suspects, the police said.

The only comprehensive survey done on violence against homeless people was 
a study in New York City in 1994, after several attacks where youths set 
fire to sleeping homeless people. The survey found that 80 percent of 
homeless people had been victims of violent crime.

While there have been no spectacular incidents of violence against homeless 
people in New York since the survey was done, Mary Ann Brosnahan, director 
of the New York Coalition for the Homeless, said the coalition occasionally 
heard anecdotal reports of harassment.
"We know that homeless people are far more likely to be the victims of 
violent crime," Ms. Brosnahan said, "than the perpetrators."