Recent news stories have brought to light another issue for law enforcement—attacks on the homeless. Estimates are that the homeless population has swelled to more than one million nationally, with almost 50 percent lacking shelter. Moreover, the National Coalition for the Homeless reports a rise in violence against the homeless, with at least 880 unprovoked attacks and 244 fatalities. Most of the attacks were brutal—a man in Cleveland savagely beaten in a group attack, a man in Los Angeles set on fire, a woman pushed down a steep staircase and another raped. The Coalition reports that most of these attacks were committed by males aged 25 or younger and that in the last 10 years 58 percent of attackers were teenagers.
How should we respond to this growing problem? While many cities have taken effective steps to address the problem, homeless persons have fallen prey to enforcement sweeps and new laws with restrictions on sleeping, sitting, or asking for money. In a recent news article, Los Angeles was accused of criminalizing homelessness because of its harsh police enforcement, which includes handing out tickets to the homeless for minor offenses and jailing them in some cases. In Las Vegas, a public crackdown on encampments has forced the homeless to move out of the parks and off the streets. Feeling threatened by police and other assailants, many have gone literally underground to live in flood channels. Advocates for the homeless have attributed attacks on these vulnerable citizens to the city’s enforcement posture and the attitude it creates.
In contrast to these enforcement strategies, other cities have turned to businesses for help and have enacted harsher laws and penalties for the attackers. Maryland has passed stiffer penalties in its expanded hate-crime law to protect the homeless. Washington, DC, has added a similar measure and a related bill was recently introduced in Congress. Similar proposals are being considered in other states. Portland, OR, has taken a different approach—one that focuses on sidewalks that are clean, welcoming, and accessible to all. The city’s emphasis on “Sidewalk Access for All” has provided better services and shelter for the homeless. Businesses work collaboratively with city agencies and other nonprofits to make their vision of accessibility a reality. Partnerships between merchants, advocates for the homeless, and city agencies have been key to this strategy.
We all know that some people are homeless, and can probably recall hearing that the numbers are projected to increase, but have probably spent little time thinking about what that means for our local community and neighborhoods. For those of us who live in urban areas, we may have passed a homeless person on the street without a word or thought as we hurriedly passed by to “get somewhere.” We may have gotten angry when they asked us for money, projecting our own worries about instability on them as they are easy, visible targets. Or perhaps we reported them to police or put pressure on city officials to address the problem.
If you’re like me, you may have thought about what you would do if you lost your home, your job, your health—especially when we see our neighbors and friends, “rich” or “poor,” forced to deal with one or more of these issues. As our communities begin to receive and implement programs with Recovery Act funds, the reality is that we need to effectively respond. Partnerships and vision were key for Portland. For Maryland and Washington, DC, stiffer penalties for attackers provided an answer. How we respond will be different for each of our communities, but the reality is that we must respond. The problem is not going away. It is growing. What will we do? For more information about crime prevention strategies, visit ncpc.org. For more information about the status of the homeless and recommendations for your community, visit http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/index.html#reports.