You Shouldn't Be Scared of Homeless People, Homeless People Should Be Scared of You

If anyone in America should be paranoid about crime, it's not white people in the suburbs -- it's the homeless.

Editor's note: The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. 

Sometimes, a valiant public servant must take action to protect his constituents, grab a sledgehammer and parade around town smashing homeless people's shopping carts, as Hawaii's State Rep. Tom Brower did two years ago. Others might favor a softer touch. Councilman Cameron Runyan of Columbia, South Carolina, suggested the city ship homeless people to a privately operated "Retreat" 15 miles out of the city. This helpful service would be no free ride though; the homeless people placed there would be expected to hand over their disability checks to help pay for the facility, local media reported. 

Shocking official responses to homelessness are in no short supply, although the really outrageous cases can backfire. A backlash forced Runyan to scale back his plans; perhaps he was made aware of the unfortunate historical precedent for rounding up and disappearing undesirables. But the savvy lawmaker looking to spruce up a neighborhood knows there's a better way to sell a crackdown: you need to paint it as essential to public safety, reluctantly undertaken, with plenty of hand-wringing about balancing the rights of homeless people with everyone else's security. That's key, because open antipathy towards the homeless is for mean cops, Wall Street jerks or local politicians who haven't mastered political optics. Everyone else is deeply troubled by homeless people's plight, but at the same time: what about the mom or the tourist who doesn't feel safe walking down a street lined with panhandlers?

Citing safety concerns, city officials in FloridaCalifornia and other tourist magnets have passed a multitude of laws that serve to remove the homeless from tourist spots. Other locales cite the threats to children and families allegedly presented by homeless people who live in parks and other public leisure spaces. Just last week, Fresno, CA Council President Steve Brandau offered this improbable justification for why the city passed a law prohibiting homeless people from storing their belongings in shopping carts. "People go through our garbages, they invade our neighborhoods, and because of that, it's become a public safety issue," he told local media. 

It's true that some people end up on the street as the result of mental illness and some can behave in bizarre ways that can be frightening. Still other subgroups, like young people on the street, might engage in some criminal behavior, at times to survive. But overall, there isn't much evidence that people whose life circumstances have resulted in their not having a roof over their head present a significant threat to people who have homes. 

Homeless People and Crime

In the late 80s, sociologists undertook a study of homeless crime, their curiosity piqued after NIMBY-like protests over a proposed new location for a Salvation Army. It's no wonder residents were freaked out, since their worries included that the men served by the SA would "rape their women" and "rob their homes." 

But after tracking a large cohort of homeless men over 27 months the sociologists found that around 1 percent of the crimes for which the men were arrested were violent. Twenty percent were serious property crimes. This is a striking contrast with non-homeless men who were arrested in the same period. Two thirds of the time, they were arrested for serious crimes against people and property. 

"... it would appear that the homeless are certainly no more, and probably less, likely to commit crimes of violence than the general male population," the researchers concluded. A larger study that analyzed 47,592 interviews with people in jail throughout the US found that,  "Homeless are jailed not because of their dangerousness but rather their offensiveness." 

There is, however, an abundance of evidence that homeless people are victims of crimes far more often than members of the general public. They're easy prey for rapists, serial killers, teenagers looking for someone to beat up, and whatever kind of human it takes to throw gasoline on another person and set them on fire. And, of course, the police. If there's any population that has the right to be paranoid about crime and worried for their safety, who is likely to suffer serious bodily injury from assault, to be raped or to be killed, it's not suburban white people, it's people living on the street. 

"I've heard everything from business people throwing trash at female panhandlers to watching male tourists trying to solicit prostitution from teenage runaways to countless stories of homeless citizens being beaten, as a 'bit of sport,' by young men leaving bars and nightclubs (and I've seen the bruises and black eyes)," says sociologist Laura Huey, who has spent years documenting harassment and attacks against homeless people. "I'm not alone in being aware of this phenomenon; I've heard the same from many police officers and social workers. Rapes, random attacks with weapons, chemicals, you name it." 

Here's a case in point: Michael*, a 36-year-old who sleeps on the street in New York's Lower East Side, has a round face and one eye swollen-shut almost to a slit. A few days ago he was jumped by three young guys, he tells AlterNet, for no reason he could think of, except that he'd been asking passersby for money. This is not the only time he's been the victim of a crime recently. 

He points to his pants, sopping wet from the incessant, drizzling rain, and resignedly notes that he can't change because someone stole a suitcase that held all his clothes. His friend, rail thin with wide blue eyes, describes how a while back some "regular, normal looking guys" shoved him up against a gate and took the money he'd collected that day. "Who steals a homeless man's change?" he wonders. Overall, the cops are pretty nice to them, they say, because they know them. But one night in the midst of this year's brutal winter, Michael was booted from a stairwell by police and forced outside into the cold. So why not just go to a shelter? The two men note that NYC's shelters differ from jail only in that you can't bring guns into jail, so jail is probably safer. So, they mostly stay on the street despite its discomforts and dangers.

Sociologist Clare Kinsella has noted that crime discourse allows for two categories of person: the feared and those who fear, and that the homeless are defined as the former and never the latter, with deeply unfortunate consequences.

Amping Up the Fear

Homelessness advocate Paul Boden remembers trying to drink a beer in San Francisco's Union Square one afternoon in the early 80s. A cop marched up to him and made him pour it out, which sucked, but that was the end of it. The harassment-lite was typical of his stint on the street in the early eighties. In part, that's because he was a white boy from Long Island. But it also helped that he was homeless during a time when the visibly homeless were treated less like public menaces. 

"The level of fear and paranoia or otherness was different in '83," he says. "I didn't get it as bad."

In the next few decades the figure of the chronically homeless person tilted squarely into the "feared" category. Almost everyone alive today in America was steeped in images of urban decay that include unwashed, drunk or drugged-up panhandlers floating in a sea of crack pipes and needles, sound-tracked by the wail of police sirens. Find one 80s or 90s movie set in a city hells-cape that doesn't show bums around a trash fire. 

The media and public officials terrorized the public with imagery of urban horror, refracting a multitude of race and class anxieties through the figure of the prostitute, drug dealer or dreaded squeegee man in NYC. Politicians like Rudy Giuliani and William Bratton positioned themselves as the heroes who took bold, necessary action to make cities safe. Inspired by broken-windows theory, which posits that serious crime arises from public disorder and petty crimes, they sought to scrub the city clean of undesirables. In 1990s and 2000s Bratton took broken-windows policing on the road, applying its precepts to Los Angeles as police commissioner and in other cities as a consultant. 

Concepts of danger and disorder/uncleanliness may have some natural overlap, but broken-windows conflates the two to an extreme degree. The literal cosmetic nature of broken-windows theory makes it perpetuate a tendency to see danger in unwashed hair, dirty clothes, darker skin. What it does not do is realistically or statistically assess the likelihood that the guy begging on the corner has either the desire or ability to cause you harm.

There are other psychological reasons many people stare purposefully ahead when they walk past the homeless, or launch impassioned citizen campaigns against city efforts to put homeless shelters in their neighborhoods. Huey notes that homeless people represent a nexus of existential fears. "These include being a social outcast, feelings of social or moral degradation, becoming destitute, being forgotten and/or uncared for," she tells AlterNet. 

"These nightmares combine with still other things that bring discomfort or unease: dirt, noise and/or the 'strange behaviors' associated with mental distress. These concerns manifest in a fear -- rarely realized as an actual event -- of the threat of violence."

There's also the obvious and not-irrational fear of your own proximity to and vulnerability to ruin, the need to put as much distance between yourself and the guy who's hit bottom by capitalism-success standards. So-called NIMBY movements -- organized in response to city efforts to open shelters and services in new neighborhoods -- are not just the business of finicky rich people. Many working class people may see and fear reflections of their own disenfranchisement as social services aiding the homeless spring up in their part of town. 

In a study of a years-long fight to keep shelters out of a relatively progressive city in Massachusetts, anthropologist Vincent Lyon-Callo found that many residents who opposed city efforts to build more shelters in their neighborhood bristled at accusations that they were bigoted towards the homeless. Many took pains to convince him that they felt bad and wanted to help. At the same time, they expressed frustration that city hall ignored their concerns and suggested the policy making would be playing out differently in a different sort of neighborhood. "Once the new rich move into this neighborhood and gentrify it, we won't have any more social services placed here because they'll be listened to in city hall," one interview subject told Lyon-Callo. It's a sentiment echoed throughout fights over placement of social services, and it’s not entirely wrong. 

Besides, who could blame them, when the very people trying to flood their neighborhood with homeless people didn't seem too keen on the homeless themselves?

In a review of literature produced by homeless advocates in the area, from grant letters to newsletters to quotes given to media, Lyon-Callo found that social service organizations scare-mongered about the homeless as well, contributing, "... to these popular imaginings by symbolically representing homelessness as the result of deviant and dysfunctional individuals in need of reform or training." Lyon-Callo found that the surest way for the industry to raise much-needed money was to present the homeless as a threat that only they could address (they are far from the worst offenders in this regard, of course, and provide essential services to the homeless). 

"Urine, feces, hypodermic needles,' Boden says. "That's the mantra attached to the homeless now. There's a concerted effort to get rid of people, so you have to demonize them." 

"You can't talk about human beings and treat them that way." Boden continues. "It gives the idea, "This isn't a real person, let's kick their ass." 

Would Someone Do It to a Businessman?

In January, three men reportedly ambushed a homeless man who was sleeping on Ventura beach, threw a lighting agent on him, and set him on fire. In interviews on the local news, visibly shaken residents couldn't wrap their heads around the grisly attack; he was a nice guy who'd mostly just hung out, why would anyone hurt him? The sad fact is that homeless people are extremely vulnerable to such vicious attacks. 

For the past 15 years, Michael Stoops, Executive Director at National Coalition for the Homeless has had the unpleasant job of chronicling what he calls hate crimes against the homeless by housed individuals. After all this time, it's still the setting-people-on-fire that's the most disturbing. "It's like America's version of ISIS," he tells AlterNet. The group's criteria for whether an attack against a homeless person constitutes a "hate crime" is simple: would someone do the same thing to a business man or business woman? It is hard to imagine people throwing gasoline on a businessman or business woman and setting them on fire.  

NCH tracks attacks through media coverage, reports by service providers and self-reporting by victims (and notes that this is an imperfect method since attacks are underreported) and has recorded 1,437 violent "hate" crimes against the homeless in the past 15 years. There's was a 24 percent jump between 2012 and 2013 in violent attacks, with 109 attacks and 18 deaths. The perpetrators tend to be young men. Sometimes they're accompanied by girlfriends. He notes they come in all races and classes, but are overwhelmingly white males. Mobile technologies have apparently opened up a novel avenue for youthful stupidity and sadism: teens videotaping themselves assaulting homeless people.

It doesn't surprise Stoops that young people would get the message it's OK to hurt homeless people. 

"When cities have enacted and are enforcing laws targeted at the homeless population. You'll go to city hall meetings and you'll hear people talking badly about the homeless population because that's part of the public discourse. That gives impression to immature young people that perhaps they're doing their city a favor by getting rid of homeless," he says. 

"A number of perps have been suburban youth, who can watch really offensive videos on the internet," he says. "You'll still find bum fights series that were done in early parts of century. You'll find them getting reviews. A young person sees this, maybe they think, ‘We should do the same thing.’”

If only teenagers from the suburbs were the only concern. There's also a certain amount of homeless-on-homeless crime, probably due to proximity, vulnerability and untreated mental illness; many people fear shelters for precisely this reason.

The threat of rape is ever present for homeless women (and some men), including in shelters, and sometimes at the hands of staff. Just this summer a pastor who ran a homeless shelter was arrested for raping the women he was supposed to help.

One study found that 13% of homeless women said they'd been raped in the past year and half had been raped more than once, noted the report No Safe Place. The authors point to another study that found 9% of homeless women had been sexually victimized in the past month. Often the trauma of sexual assault is heaped upon already existing trauma; research has found that a shocking number of homeless women have endured physical or sexual abuse during their lives, and many end up on the street for precisely that reason, where they have an even higher chance of being assaulted. "One of largest and most in-depth studies on this topic found that 92% of a racially diverse sample of homeless mothers had experienced severe physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives, with 43% reporting sexual abuse in childhood and 63% reporting intimate partner violence in adulthood," note the authors of No Safe Place. 

“You don’t want to have anybody see you cry ’cause he knows he conquered you" ... “I’d be so cold I’d be shaking,” a woman told Portland's KOIN news, describing being raped on the street.  “You holler, ‘Help, help, help,’ and my mouth couldn’t even move but I know in my mind I was saying, ‘Help me, help me.'”

But, of course, many homeless crime victims don't get help and that's one of the things that makes them such easy prey for all criminals. 

"People think they can attack homeless, they're an easy mark," says Stoops. "They won't fight back, they won't report the crime, they don't usually have a good relationship with law enforcement. Homeless folks consider getting beat up by whoever as part of the homeless experience."

Ironically, the very policies put in place to "protect" housed people from the homeless make the homeless more vulnerable to violence. "The intention is to make the homeless as invisible as possible," Boden says. "As soon as the homeless create a safe place, police bust them up, forcing them out. They're hiding from the people who're supposed to be protecting them [police] and that leaves them vulnerable to harassment, beatings."

And in criminalizing so much homeless behavior -- sleeping, sitting, pushing a shopping cart with your belongings down the street -- cities ensure near-constant contact with police. And near-constant contact with police inevitably leads to police brutality or even killings, especially since most police officers lack appropriate training to de-escalate confrontations with people who may suffer from mental illness -- like when police shot dead a man who'd been camping in the Albuquerque hills or the still under-investigation confrontation with police that ended a man's life on LA's Skid Row this month. 

"Don't feel safe on the street? We don't feel safe on your streets either, so let's address the real problems" Boden says, and points out that there are solutions to homelessness like housing and services that don't involve demonizing the homeless and shuttling them from sight. 

Tana Ganeva is a reporter covering criminal justice, drug policy and homelessness. Follow her on Twitter @TanaGaneva.