Let's Stop the LynchingThe beating deaths of seven homeless men in Denver Colorado have brought national attention to violence against the homeless. But are such deaths something new?
In every large city of the United States, thousands of people die every year of many causes, including violence. Hundreds of people die homeless. Some of the homeless die of exposure. Many die of illness or other "natural causes," made worse by the stresses of living on the street. Some commit suicide or are killed in traffic or other accidents.
And dozens are murdered.
Every now and then, the murders are dramatic enough to catch national attention, and then, for awhile, there are national stories about the tragedies of homelessness.
Over the last few months, seven homeless men have been beaten to death in Denver Colorado. In two of the crimes, the bodies were decapitated. The horror has brought the deaths into the headlines and raised fear among the homeless in Colorado.
The Denver LoDo Homeless Murders
AP: Denver, Homeless On Alert
But violent death among homeless people sleeping outside is not at all uncommon.
from The Morgue, Internet Crime Archives:
August 25, 1999 - Four Dead Homeless in Sydney, Australia - Four homeless people have been murdered in Sydney in the past nine months. Detectives from three city commands, who met with officers from the Homicide and Violent Serial Offenders Agency, were reluctant to say a serial killer was preying on Sydney's homeless. They would only only say that all four unsolved murders involved one major blow to the head with a blunt object and that the victims were all probably asleep when they were killed.
July 21, 1999 - Todd Alan Reed - Portland Police filed court documents saying they have DNA evidence linking their suspect, Todd Reed, to the three homeless women found strangled in Forest Park. Reed was arraigned on three counts of aggravated murder. According to court documents, bodily fluids found in a used condom nearby one of victims and on the thighs of another match Reed's DNA.
Seattle Washington: In 1997 a Seattle man was set on fire as he slept on a bench outside an overcrowded homeless shelter. In 1998 the strangling deaths of four homeless women were tied to one serial killer. In 1999 five homeless men were stabbed to death in Seattle in five months.
November 28, 1999, New York: A homeless woman was burned severely on the New York subway. Reports differ on whether it was an accident or an attack.
It doesn't always make the national headlines. It doesn't always even make the local headlines. It is impossible to tell how many unidentified victims of violent crime were homeless, or how many homeless people who disappear have moved to another state, or gotten jobs -- or become the victims of violence.
Even when the death of a homeless person is identified as murder, it does not always create much furor. The murders of homeless women in Seattle in 1998 were not publicly identified as the work of a serial killer until after the Seattle police had a suspect in jail -- a suspect who confessed to the killing after being arrested for an unrelated burglary. Until the announcement of arrest, the Seattle police had denied that the killings were the activities of a serial killer, and no attempts were made to warn local homeless women of an increased risk on the street.
Protests by the homeless women's group WHEEL led to meetings with the Seattle Police Department on increasing communications in such cases, and the Seattle Mayor's public commitment of increased funds to "bring every homeless woman and child in off the street."
Sometimes the dangers come from the police themselves. Partly because most police officers have little training in handling distraught mentally ill persons, many confrontations lead to tragedy.
Philadelpia Homeless Man Killed
The Death of Margaret Mitchell: a homeless woman armed with a screw driver was shot to death by an LA police officer
A appeal to care for, not criminalize, the severely mentally ill
Every person in the United States seems to run some risk of violent death. Do homeless people run additional risks, beyond the average? What can be done to lessen these risks?
Additional risks usually identified for the homeless are:
- Vulnerability. If you are outside in the open, you are at more risk of attack than if you are within four walls and behind locked doors and windows.
- Weakened defenses. There are strong and healthy homeless people; there are also many ill and elderly ones, including those sleeping outside. Some of those who are mentally ill have an impaired ability to recognize and avoid danger.
- The scapegoat effect. "Outsiders" and the weak are more likely to be targets for general rage. The homeless fit both criteria.
Things that can be done to lessen these risks include:
- Bring everyone inside. Create enough shelter and housing for everyone; create enough prosperity and stability for everyone.
- Until that Millennium arrives, don't criminalize homelessness. Don't make it illegal for someone to simply be sleeping outside. Create places where homeless people can band together outside to keep each other clean and safe. The current policies in most cities, of forcing homeless people to be scattered and out of sight, make them more vulnerable.
- Increase outreach of health agencies, including addiction recovery and mental health services, to the homeless. Meeting people where they are and getting them started on appropriate treatments will increase both their chances of surviving immediate stresses, and of progressing toward better conditions. It will also improve general public health.
- Reverse public scapegoating of the homeless.
In Denver, two teenagers have been accused of one of the homeless beating deaths, leading to another wave of editorials about the causes of violence among youth. Yet Denver has negative messages about the worth of homeless people coming from adults, like every other city in the US does. Two of the homeless men in Seattle were stabbed to death by teenagers, leading to editorials criticizing parents, schools and video games. Yet I have heard Seattle's own City Attorney imply in a City Council hearing that most of the crime in Seattle's public parks is committed by homeless people -- only one of a constant wave of messages from Seattle's businesses, neighborhoods and government that the homeless are a continual source of problems for the city.
At one time, black people were openly lynched in this country. That activity ended as a result of several factors:
- Political and legal action to enforce the civil rights of black people.
- A change in social mores, to make discrimination and racial abuse unacceptable. Peer pressure discourages racial slurs and open discrimination.
- An increase in the pride and self-worth of black people themselves.
Homeless activists and advocates are attempting to forward all three of these factors in regard to homeless people.
Legislation is suggested to add "class" or "economic status" to the wording of anti-discrimination statutes. Progressive politicians oppose the "homeless harassment" laws passed in many cities, such as "no sitting on the sidewalks."
Homeless people themselves are organizing in grassroots efforts to improve their own lives and seek solutions to what they perceive are the root causes of homelessness. Homeless activists and non-homeless advocates alike are combating the stereotypes of the ignorant, shiftless, addicted, mentally ill and criminal homeless person with stories, statistics and speaker's bureaus showing the realities of homelessness. The American cultural identification of poverty with shame is slowly being eroded as the idea that all human beings have dignity continues to gain ground from its historical beginnings through all the other barriers it has since worn down.
Empowerment Wall links
Each of us can continue the growth of human dignity. Most of us automatically challenge racial or religious slurs or ethnic jokes. We don't let the people around us spread rumors like "Jews drain the blood of Christian babies" or "All Black men rape White women." Challenge rumors and slurs about homeless people and welfare recipients. In New York, because a woman was attacked by a man rumored to be homeless, Mayor Giuliani felt it legitimate to crack down on all the homeless people in New York. In Seattle, the man who killed a bus driver in 1998 was briefly rumored to have been homeless, and scare editorials across the city advocated eliminating the "free fare" business zone in the city to discourage any homeless people from riding the buses. These reactions are beyond reason and dignity. We are all the media. Don't let a rumor get past you without being challenged.
This is an editorial. My personal biases are fairly obvious, and I expect you to take them into account when evaluating what I say. I have given you links to sources to check out information for yourself.
But whatever your own attitudes toward the homeless or beliefs about solutions to the problems of the homeless, I hope that you can agree with me that human beings will solve more problems if we act together as a community, treating each other with respect and dignity. A woman who thinks herself worthless will not bother becoming educated. A man who thinks himself worthless will not bother cleaning himself up. If you want people to act with dignity, you have to give them some dignity to act with.
Let's stop the lynching.
Homeless Columns ed. by Anitra L. Freeman