By: Tim Houchen
December 1, 2018 —
There are so many ways that a human being can die and persons experiencing homelessness are no different, with one exception. Homeless persons live from day-to-day at an elevated risk of severe illness and harmful injury resulting in death, at a rate four times higher than the general population.
The average age for the death of a homeless person is about 50 years old, the age in which most Americans died in the early 1900’s. Today, Americans that are not homeless, can expect to live on the average, 78 years.
Homeless people suffer the same illnesses as experienced by people with homes, but at a rate that is almost six times higher. This includes potentially lethal communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and influenza, as well as, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.
The unwillingness of some chronically homeless individuals to seek shelter at public facilities is based on more than just germophobic paranoia. There is evidence that using emergency homeless shelters does put them at a greater risk for communicable illness, especially during seasonal outbreaks of influenza.
For instance. Have you ever slept a night in an emergency homeless shelter during the winter? If you did, you might find it difficult to sleep through the steady discordance of coughing and hacking from other less healthy shelter inhabitants. But, don’t lie awake on your mat all night thinking about all of the germs and bacteria floating in the air around you. After all, it’s cold and flu season and you need your rest to stay healthy.
Homeless people die from illnesses that can be treated or prevented, but research shows that their risk of death on the streets is only moderately affected by substance abuse or mental illness. It is the chronic physical conditions like heart problems or even cancer that are more likely to lead to early death for homeless persons.
Difficulty getting rest, maintaining medications, eating well, staying clean and staying warm prolong and exacerbate illnesses, sometimes to the point that they are life threatening.
In recent years, a growing and very disturbing cause of death among homeless people has emerged. Since 1999, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), has documented nearly 2,000 acts of violence against homeless individuals by housed perpetrators. The crimes are believed to to have been motivated by the perpetrators bias against people experiencing homelessness. The crimes include an array of atrocities such as murder, beatings, rapes and even mutilations.
Between 1999 and 2015, NCH reported 1,657 acts of violence committed against individuals experiencing homelessness. Of the 1,657 acts of violence, 428 victims lost their lives as a result of the attacks (26%). Hate crimes were reported in every state and the perpetrators were generally males under 30, but were most often committed by teenage boys.
Those experiencing homelessness in California were at greatest risk of becoming victims of violent attack than in any other state according to NCH. Incredibly, 49% of homeless respondents included in the NCH studies reported being victims of violence, only 2% of the general population do the same.
The NCH research did not include reports of violence committed by homeless people against other homeless people. Only attacks perpetrated by housed individuals on unhoused individuals were evaluated in their study. When combined, the instances of violence against persons experiencing homelessness become more substantial.
The frequency of violent attacks may be even more common, but because the homeless community is treated so poorly in our society many attacks go unreported. It is difficult to understand the full scope of the abuses under these circumstances, but one thing is certain; violence and hate crimes against homeless people are a vital issue in need of public attention.
Orange County has witnessed its share of hate crimes and violence committed against homeless people here. Very few people will remember that a serial killer took the lives of four homeless men right here in Orange County. The story gained international coverage in the news media in December and January 2012 and scared a bunch of homeless people enough to send them to the armories until the killer was eventually brought to justice.
There have been some particularly heinous hate crimes and violent attacks committed against homeless people in Orange County during the course of 2018 as well.
On New Years Day, January 1, 2018 at approximately 4:15 am, Santa Ana Police arrested a 22 year old man after Betty Jane Willis had been found dead in a parking lot on First St. in Santa Ana. The 76 year old homeless woman had been a promising recording artist in the 1960’s and worked with the likes of Phil Spector and Leon Russell at Hollywood’s legendary Gold Star Studio. Two days after police found him punching and choking Willis to death, the 22 year old Guatemalan refugee was charged with her attempted rape and murder.
Just a couple of weeks later on January 19, 2018, a 35 year old man from Santa Ana approached the tent of a homeless couple who were camped near the riverbed. They were awakened by the man who shouted that they had just 15 minutes to leave or he would return with a gun. When the male victim stuck his head out of the door of the tent to address the man, he was kicked several times in the head. The suspect then left the scene and came back a few minutes later dousing the tent with gasoline from a can and setting the tent ablaze with the couple still inside. Both victims suffered minor burns in the incident. Apparently the suspect was despondent because he did not want homeless people sleeping near his neighborhood.
On February 23, 2018, a homeless man was found dead after an altercation with a bicyclist at Motel 6 on Chapman Ave. in Orange, adjacent to the riverbed.
On March 11, 2018, a 44 year old homeless man, Jesse Dean Dowell, was killed in an assault at the Plaza of Flags at the Santa Ana Civic Center.
April 7, 2018, a homeless man identified as Juan Molina, was found dead at El Salvador Park in Santa Ana from an apparent blow to the head.
April 10, 2018, a homeless man in Costa Mesa was assaulted by a 35 year old man visiting from Las Vegas leaving the man with serious head trauma leading to his death.
A Garden Grove man was charged with assault and attempted arson after allegedly throwing a Molotov Cocktail at two homeless men in Anaheim on June 27, 2018. Neither of the men were injured in the attack.
Unfortunately, the list of random violent attacks against homeless persons in Orange County goes on, but what consequences do those seeking to intentionally harm homeless people in our county face?
On November 22, 2018, a man extradited from Arizona was sentenced to just three years behind bars for fatally stabbing a homeless man, Roy Thomas Emming, in Santa Ana in 1984. John William Zelinski, accepted a plea deal and was released one week later after getting credit for time served while he was awaiting trial.
Without judgement of the circumstances and motive surrounding the 1984 murder, it leaves to wonder. Was it the fact that the victim was homeless, or was it because of the length of time it took local law enforcers to bring the killer to justice that would merit such a light sentence in this case?
The 1984 murder most likely was not motivated by bias on the part of the offender, but what if it had been? What would be the basis for prosecution of this murder as a hate crime?
A hate crime is defined by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a “criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or part, by the offender’s bias.”
Quite simply, the FBI does not currently recognize protected status for persons experiencing homelessness, nor does any other law enforcement agency in the U.S. including your county sheriff and local police department.
When we associate the term “hate crime” with an assault on a homeless person, it only seeks to describe the nature of the assault itself and says nothing about how the crime should be prosecuted and nothing about the severity of the punishment should the court find a conviction.
While some positive steps have been taken to address homelessness recently in Orange County, there are still too many ways that our county and cities continue to dehumanize homeless persons by creating and enforcing laws that criminalize their homeless status. These laws place restrictions on sitting, sleeping and storing personal property in public spaces and encourage the belief that homeless persons are not human, are unworthy of respect and raise the likelihood that vicious attacks against homeless people will go unnoticed. That no one will care.
In the 1984 case of the murdered homeless man in Santa Ana, a light sentence was given to the killer by the courts. This sends a message to the public that says, “homeless lives are less valuable than others, so it’s OK that homeless people are killed.”
When a hundred sheriff’s deputies converge on a homeless encampment in full riot gear to evict homeless persons who have nowhere to go except the streets, the message sent to the public says, “Homeless people are dangerous criminals and are not worthy of living in our city.”
When a public official, whether it be a city council member or county supervisor, attends a town hall meeting on homelessness and is met by a hostile crowd, fomenting hatred and ranting suggestions of vigilantism and the use of force against homeless people, and this has happened in the past. If that particular public official does not publicly denounce the actions there and then, in fact, doesn’t say a word, then they send a message that says, “I’m with you, brothers. Let’s gather our torches, pitchforks and AK-47’s and let’s get those lousy homeless bastards out of our city.”
These are all examples of messages that our leaders have been sending to the public. This is how our own local government has failed to protect its own most vulnerable population, many of which are citizens having lived and worked here in our county prior to being homeless according to record. There is so much hate and contempt for homeless people here that safety and security has been compromised for them.
I’m not trying to be funny, but I am gravely concerned that some of our leaders have created a toxic environment that could be used by some members of the public as internal justification for facilitating violent attacks against homeless people.
Will the time come when a sick and twisted member of our society commits a most vicious and violent attack on homeless persons while thinking he is doing our society a favor, or has that time already arrived?
I recently watched a video clip of Mike Robbins, a homeless advocate, speaking at a Board of Supervisors meeting during public comments. In the video clip Mike speaks to the Board about “changing the narrative.”
Mike Robbins – Changing The Narrative
Mike goes on to imply that the problem of homelessness can’t be solved until we change the narrative. He points out that our elected officials should be responsible for doing this and I am convinced 100% that Mike is absolutely correct. I believe that, with Mike’s help of course, I have come up with a way to change the narrative of homelessness in Orange County through legislation.
Both the federal government and the State of California have introduced legislation several times in recent years that would have provided class protection for persons experiencing homelessness, but none to date have passed successfully. The Homeless Bill of Rights is an example of recently failed California legislation that would have provided the needed protection.
To create new legislation specifically for protecting the rights of homeless persons, as in the Homeless Bill of Rights, would be similar to re-inventing the wheel and is not necessary.
California already has existing hate crime laws that make provisions for other protected classes. If a homeless status were added to the current legislation it would give homeless persons the necessary protection. Stiffer penalties for violence against homeless persons would discourage people from attacking them. In addition to prevention, adding homeless status into hate crime legislation demonstrates respect for this population and recognizes them as worthy of protection. This would indicate to homeless individuals that they deserve recognition and to others that this group has legal protections.
On November 27, 2018, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to approve any legislation that would protect homeless people under the existing state hate crime laws. This came after several serious and deadly attacks on homeless people in Los Angeles this year.
The Los Angeles resolution indicates that Orange County is not alone as far as violence committed against homeless persons is concerned. It is seldom true that what is good for L.A. is good also for Orange County, but in this case it sure seems that it might be.
Adding the language surrounding housing status to existing hate crime legislation is at least, a worthwhile prospect that should be taken up with our friends in the state legislature to find out if this can be done, and how we can move the idea forward.
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