Over the last several months, San Diego has been sweeping homeless encampments, constantly displacing residents who have nowhere else to go and disposing of items of personal and survival value. Quietly, the city laid down boulders beneath an overpass, on a side walk often used by houseless folks to rest. Later that year, three teenagers were charged in 2016 with beating a homeless man to death just outside of the city. Just one month after, another series of senseless attacks on men sleeping outdoors in San Diego left three dead and one more critically injured.
The National Coalition for the Homeless is deeply saddened by these events, but we are not surprised.
In the early 1990’s, the National Coalition for the Homeless noticed that a growing number of cities were passing ordinances banning everyday activities carried out by people who were homeless. Bans on panhandling, camping, or even sharing food in public places have since become common place in cities across the country, just as poverty and homelessness have been increasing.
No Safe Street: A Survey of Violence Committed against Homeless People a new report published by the National Coalition for the Homeless finds that over the last 17 years, at least 1,657 people experiencing homelessness have been the victims of violence perpetrated for the sole reason that they were unhoused at the time. This number includes 428 men and women who lost their lives for being homeless, and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is easy to see a correlation between the appearance of laws criminalizing homelessness, and the increase of hate crimes or violent acts against homeless people. A 2014 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty entitled No Safe Street found that out of 187 cities that have enacted some type of law criminalizing daily activities often carried out by people without stable housing, 21 cities were located in California (11%) and 17 were in Florida (9%). No Safe Street reports that out of 199 attacks against homeless persons in 2014-2015, the largest share of incidents took place in California (43 attacks) and Florida (18 attacks).
One possible explanation for this is the message that criminalizing homelessness sends to the general public: “Homeless people do not matter and are not worthy of living in our city.” This message is blatant in the attitudes many cities have toward homeless people and can be used as an internal justification for attacking someone.
No Safe Street cites more than double the number of fatalities from bias motivated violence against people who are homeless than the FBI has tracked for all federally protected classes combined. Professor of Criminal Justice at California State University San Bernardino, Brian Levin, finds that “the characteristics of bias attacks against the homeless are very similar to that of hate crime in general. As with other hate crimes, offenders fit a pattern: typically, young male “thrill offenders” acting on stereotypes, seeking excitement and peer validation.”
Moreover, in communities across the country (except for a handful of progressive cities and states), it is perfectly legal to discriminate against someone who is unhoused in employment, housing, or even in delivery of health or social services. What message are our municipalities sending to their residents?
As we have attempted to legislate homelessness out of sight in our communities, we have created a hostile environment for people who fall on hard times. Social services have not kept up with the pace of need, and in many cases have been cut or restricted. Instead of responding with compassion and generosity, on the whole, our communities have responded with prejudice and judgement.
Study after study has found savings for public services when someone is housed versus homeless. In fact, in 2016 the University of Denver’s School of Law released a report which found that just six Colorado cities have spent more than five million dollars enforcing 14 anti-homeless ordinances over the last 5 years through policing, court and incarceration costs. Our failure to end homelessness has only brought financial and human costs to our communities.
As we look towards a change in our federal leadership, the National Coalition for the Homeless calls on our fellow citizens to prioritize compassion over comfort. The solution to homelessness, and the best method for preventing further violence, is simple: housing.