A 25-year-old Miami real estate agent was arrested last month for the fatal shootings of two homeless people. His alleged crimes are an extreme example of targeted attacks on the homeless across the U.S.
Experts and advocates say the last year has seen a spike in violence against the homeless, including a beheading in Colorado, a sleeping man lit on fire in a New York City apartment complex stairwell, and an attack by four juveniles on a sleeping woman in Washington state. There are increasing collisions between the housed and unhoused populations during the pandemic, the Washington Post reports.
“We do believe there is an increase based on news reports and reports from advocates,” said Donald Whitehead of the National Coalition for the Homeless. For the past four years, homelessness numbers have climbed, says the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a trend that is expected to continue in 2022.
The response in many places has been “a criminalization of homelessness,” Whitehead said. “That creates this culture of people not being important. Or people being less-than. It gives people permission to commit violence.”
Homeless people may be reluctant to engage with law enforcement even when they are the victims of a crime. “They may have had bad experiences in the past with police,” said Bobby Watts of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. “Many of them also have outstanding warrants. Not because of major crimes, but most of those citations would be for vagrancy or public urination, because they don’t have anywhere else to carry out these activities.”
In 2020, the National Coalition of the Homeless found that between 1999 and 2019, there were 1,852 incidents of violence against homeless individuals. Of those attacks, 515 were fatal. California, Florida and Texas made up the majority of those attacks over the two decades, with 390, 261, and 102, respectively.