Series of Shootings Highlight Rising Violence Against Homeless People

People without housing face a multitude of threats to their well-being every day. Increasingly, those threats include becoming a victim of gun violence.

This month has brought a multitude of such reports.

A recent string of targeted shootings injured three and killed two homeless men in New York City and Washington D.C. In Sarasota, Florida, the bodies of two unhoused women were found weeks apart on the same hiking trail. In New Orleans, a woman named Chelsea Nicole Whitehead was fatally shot near her encampment last Wednesday.

While a suspect in one of these cases was arrested in D.C. last week, the perpetrators in Florida and New Orleans remain at large. Each of these cases highlights the danger unhoused individuals face while living on the streets.

"People should be housed," said Nan Roman, chief executive officer of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "If they are housed, they will not be subjected to violence in the same way. The fact is, people who are living on the street or even in shelters are very vulnerable."

"It is not too complicated," she added. "The reason you and I are not getting shot is probably because we are inside."

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 580,000 people are currently experiencing homelessness in the United States. More than half of these individuals live in California, New York and Florida.

As the number of people without housing increases in cities like New York, Tampa, and Los Angeles, so does the number of daily crimes committed against them.

Donald Whitehead Jr., Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, has observed this trend firsthand. Twenty-five years ago he was a homeless person. Since then, he has become an advocate and renowned expert on the subject.

"We saw a reduction in violence from 2018 to 2019," he told Newsweek. "But starting in 2021, we saw those numbers spike, especially during surges in the pandemic."

Studies have shown that homeless people are more likely to be victims of violent crime than housed people.

While making up just 1% percent of the population of Los Angeles, homeless people were victims in nearly 23% of the city's homicides in 2021, according to data from the Los Angeles Police Department.

In New York City, 640 homeless people died in fiscal year 2021. This marked a 4% increase from the previous year, according to statistics from the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

"Homeless New Yorkers are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators," Jacquelyn Simone, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, said in a statement.

Local leaders have had mixed reactions to the increasing violence against homeless populations within their cities.

Responding to the shootings that occurred in New York City and Washington D.C, the mayors held a joint press conference last week, where they expressed sympathy and alerted unhoused individuals to the threat.

"We know that this is a scary situation and that our unsheltered residents already face a lot of daily dangers," said Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington D.C. "It is unconscionable that anybody would target this vulnerable population."

Although a suspect was detained by police last week, some advocates are criticizing Bowser for what she said next.

"As our law enforcement agencies work quickly with federal partners to locate the suspect," she said, "we are also calling on unsheltered residents to seek shelter. Our shelters have space, they are safe, and we welcome you to stay in one while we work to find permanent housing for you."

Despite the mayor's good intentions, Whitehead says her suggestion, and those like it, highlight a fundamental misunderstanding that politicians have of those living in extreme poverty.

"Most people in Congress are millionaires," he said. "They have no understanding of what it is like to not have food and be hungry for it. They have no idea of what it is like to sleep in a tent when it is 20 degrees outside."

"From the outside looking in, you might think that any place inside is better than a place outside, but it is not that simple," said Dr. Vernon Baker, Executive Director of Just Compassion, a non-profit based in Oregon, a state with the 7th-highest homeless population in the nation.

"There are some great shelters and some not-so-great shelters," he added, "depending on where you are."

While organizations like his provide safe sheltering programs, he pointed out that many other shelters suffer from a lack of funding, low staffing, or insufficient oversight. These structural issues often contribute to resource shortages, security breaches, and improper hygienic practices within the facilities.

Nan Roman, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, noted that for vulnerable populations, especially children, teens, and single women, the local shelter may not be the safest place to stay.

Individuals are showing a greater reluctance to stay in shelters than they have in years past, she said, citing concerns related to the lack of privacy, autonomy, or safety.

"We have a growing unsheltered homeless population," she said. "Shelters need to be more of a positive option for folks than many of them are right now."

While unhoused people are especially vulnerable to crime from other citizens, Whitehead says that the violence homeless people face also stems from government policies.

Police harassment, routine "sweeps," anti-homeless architecture, and hostile sound designs are just a few examples of the measures that cities and towns have taken to prevent the unhoused from sheltering in particular public areas.

"The mistreatment of people experiencing homelessness is interconnected," Whitehead said. "At the same time we saw rates of violence against the homeless increase, we also saw more and more local governments start to raid encampments."

He criticized the rhetoric and approach many local leaders have taken to address homelessness.

"The attacks are not just coming from random raids on encampments," Whitehead told Newsweek. "It is also from elected officials, like the mayors of L.A., D.C. or New York saying we should do sweeps."

"If you think about the term 'sweeps,' what are the things that we sweep?" He asked. "We sweep trash, we sweep leaves. The language has a negative impact on how people view the homeless."

Instead of criminalizing this community, he said we must do a better job of providing support and protection. Experts say health services, cash assistance and income support programs give unhoused people the tools they need.

Roman said the immediate solution is to build more affordable housing.

"Homelessness is primarily an economic issue driven by the lack of affordable housing," she said.

"There used to be a surplus in housing, but today, we are seven million affordable units short of the households that need them," Roman said.

The minimum wage, relative to the average cost of housing, is insufficient compared to what it was 20 years ago, she added.

"We have not always had homelessness," Roman said. "It is because of factors like these that a lot of people are unable to get into housing."

She argues that giving safe and secure shelter to all unhoused individuals is the most effective policy to remove them from harm's way.

To effectively address homelessness, leaders must commit to providing affordable housing, protecting civil rights, and resisting the urge to rely on stereotypes, said Dr. Baker.

He argues that those experiencing homelessness should also be given a seat at the table to discuss issues and solutions from their perspective.

"Being person-centered is extremely important," Baker said, "and it works."

"One of the things we have not done a good job of is systemically allowing people experiencing homelessness to be a part of the process," he added, "bringing them to the table to discuss what programs, supports, and resources they actually need."

Homeless kids
Brian and Julie Morris sit with their three daughters in their room at the Family Gateway homeless shelter on June 18, 2009 in Dallas, Texas. Julie Morris was laid off from his construction job in April and the family was evicted from their home in Hurst, Texas when they could no longer make their rent payments. John Moore/Getty Images