It’s a warm day in Portland’s Tommy Park, and homeless people pass through in no particular hurry. But advocates say in the summer, the homeless also fan out to less safe parts of town, exposing them to greater risk of attacks, which they say appear to be increasing this year.
Dee Clark, who is formerly homeless and an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice, says she knows of a couple of assaults on the homeless in just the last month. “Usually we find out because we’ll notice, ‘Gee you got this really bad black eye and you got stitches, or you have a cast on, and then people start telling their story.”
“We have people coming in at night with facial lacerations, broken noses; we’re sending people to the emergency room,” says John Dana, who works at the Milestone Foundation, an emergency shelter for homeless people going through detox. “Maine Med is calling us when they’re ready to discharge somebody who’s been admitted. Homeless people are increasingly being targeted here in Portland.”
Dana says several weeks ago, a Milestone worker chased off a group of young men tailing an intoxicated homeless man. “And when he walked up, they sort of scattered but were yelling curses as if they were really angry at losing the opportunity to roll a guy who’s coming in for whatever he had.”
Advocates say homeless people are often targeted because they carry all their belongings on them. But exactly how many of the 100 or so assaults on the streets of Portland every year are on the homeless, and who is attacking them is difficult for authorities to know.
“It’s very difficult for us to gauge these numbers because many people don’t self-identify as homeless, and they are very reluctant to come forward and report the assaults,” says Portland Police Sergeant Charles Libby. “When we hear anecdotally on the streets that someone has been assaulted that we know is a homeless person, we often make contact with them to find out what has happened and what we can offer for services and take a report. and often they will refuse to actually even tell us what happened, or even admit an assault occurred.”
Libby says that at least some of attacks on the homeless are by other homeless people. But homeless advocate Marcia Frank says, by far, the attacks on the homeless are by non-homeless people.
“Homeless people hurt other homeless people, I’m not going to say that’s not true. They do,” she says. “But the violence that we have seen lately isn’t from other homeless people. One man, a couple months ago, got jumped and he had prescription pills in his back pack because that’s the only place he can carry them, and he got jumped for having the pills by non-homeless people.”
To get a better sense of how widespread attacks are on homeless people, Homeless Voices for Justice is teaming up with the Center for Preventing Hate on a new report.
“There’s certainly reason to think that we would be seeing an increase — and that reason is being in a recession,” says Steve Wessler, executive director of the Center for Preventing Hate.
“A lot of the bias, people yelling things at homeless people, or just the casual conversations people have saying negative things about homeless people, is driven from economic insecurity and fear,” Wessler says. “It’s really, I think, a sense of saying, ‘Well, I couldn’t be homeless. I have a job and I’m OK,’ and so your way of dealing with the anxiety is to portray homeless people as irresponsible people, people who don’t work.”
The role of Homeless Voices for Justice is connecting researchers with the homeless. Advocate Andrew Hayman knows what it feels like to be attacked. He remembers a day four years ago, when he was sitting outside a day shelter, drunk, when he was attacked by a stranger.
“He threatened my life. He spit on me, he flicked a lit cigarette right at my face and he called me a no-good homeless bum, on and on and on,” Hayman says. “I couldn’t believe it. But it’s real, that people have a hatred. I don’t know the psychology of it.”
Work on the report on violence against the homeless begins this month. Results come out in the fall.