Reuters

Experts see a growing desensitization to the homeless

A string of murders came to an end earlier this month when police arrested the man they suspect of killing four homeless people over the last month. The 23-year-old, an Iraq War veteran, has been charged with the murder of four homeless men, each of whom were stabbed dozens of times. These brutal murders have all taken place in a somewhat unlikely location: Orange County, Calif.

“You mean the home of the Real Housewives and the golden beaches?” asks Steve Kight. He’s the chief strategy officer at the OC Partnership, a group that helps facilitate services for the homeless, and clearly he’s joking. But it’s a sentiment that pervades the area, where the dominating affluence starkly contrasts the concept of homelessness.

And for most of the population, that concept is foreign. The median household income in Orange County was $71,735 in 2009. That’s about 22 percent higher than the rest of the state, and about 45 percent higher than the U.S. average in 2010 of $49,445.

“Orange County believes in its own myth that we can’t really have homeless people here,” Kight says.

But the homeless do exist in the O.C. Kight says that a recent count found there are roughly 6,000 people in the county on any given night who have an incidence of either living on the streets, in a shelter or transitional housing over the last year. He says the recession has changed the face of homelessness in Orange County by putting more families in need.

Of course the recession-related homelessness and the county’s overall affluence don’t explain the recent string of murders, which Kight calls a “totally freak incident.” But they’re likely an element in what Kight and others are seeing as an increasingly negative public perception of the homeless.

“There’s been a desensitization of where the homeless are and what they represent and what they need to ensure their safety and their civil rights,” says Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group in Washington.

Donovan says that even though these murders stand out as extreme examples, they’re part of a larger trend of violence directed at the homeless, one that's been increasing in recent years. Through phenomena like video games that reward players who beat and kill homeless people to videos of beatings posted on YouTube, Donovan says that such violent acts are being encouraged within a certain subset of particularly impressionable people.

His group has been tracking attacks against the homeless in an annual report. Focused specifically on hate crimes, the report compiles incidents of violence based on a certain bias against the homeless. In the past 12 years, the National Coalition for the Homeless has documented 1,184 violent acts against homeless individuals in its annual Hate Crimes Against the Homeless reports. There were 24 known deaths listed in the 2010 report [PDF], released earlier this month, and 113 attacks against the homeless, making it the fourth most violent year on record.

Data haven’t been released for 2011 yet, but recent incidents indicate that the numbers will be relatively high. As the report notes, Florida and California are "the two states with the highest number of bias-motivated crimes against homeless individuals," with 225 reported incidents in California between 1999 and 2010, and 198 in Florida. The state with the next highest number of incidents is Texas, with 72.

But the records aren’t complete, says Donovan, because crimes against the homeless often go unreported. He’s been advocating for new state laws to recognize certain attacks on homeless people as hate crimes, or at least for crime records to indicate whether a victim was homeless. If these rules were in place, the number of homeless victims would undoubtedly rise, Donovan says.

Such a law was recently vetoed by California Governor Jerry Brown, a move that has surprised and frustrated Donovan. “These are all verbal and nonverbal ways of saying the homeless don’t matter,” Donovan says.

The state has the country’s largest population of homeless people [PDF] and Donovan worries that, along with laws and policies unfriendly to the homeless, the state could be fomenting “compassion fatigue” and even outright antagonism. At least three homeless people have already been the victims of murder in 2012, including one of the four victims of the Orange County serial killer.

“This is a form and level of brutality that we’ve never seen before,” Donovan says of the recent murders. He also worries that violence directed at homeless people seems to be increasing. Stemming the trend requires a little more humanity and understanding, Donovan says, but also the policies to encourage more equitable treatment of the chronically homeless. Without such changes, the violence is likely to continue.

Top image: A makeshift memorial on the site where John Berry, a homeless man, was killed last week outside a fast-food restaurant in Anaheim, Calif. (Alex Gallardo / Reuters)

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