Invisible But In Danger: San Diego’s Homeless Are Targets For Attacks
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Photo by Katie Schoolov / KPBS
In San Diego’s alleys, side streets and sidewalks, stories of violence against people who are homeless abound.
Cheryl Taylor, a 61-year-old slender, former caregiver with a blonde bob has one.
“I’ve been raped,” she said. “And it’s really hard because I’m really a trusting person. I got hit in the face three or four times and on the side of the head. I had a concussion. I had a cut over my eye.”
Richard Stevenson said he has also been attacked despite having the build of a basketball player.
“We just started seeing rocks, big old rocks flying all over the place,” Stevenson said. “The next thing you know one bounced off the wall and hit me.”
And then there is Jeannette Reynolds.
“A guy, 16 years old, comes up behind me and put his elbow behind my neck and he almost broke my neck,” Reynolds said.
Life without an address is plenty hard for San Diego's homeless. They grapple daily with hunger, addiction, mental illness and chronic instability. Add to that list, the constant threat of of violence.
“They have no protection and there’s also desperation so there’s violence that’s committed by people who are homeless and there’s violence perpetuated on people who are homeless by people who aren’t,” said Mike McConnell, a San Diego philanthropist and homeless advocate.
Newly released numbers show in 2016, California led the nation in fatal attacks against people who live on the street likely because the homeless tend to gravitate toward regions with a warmer climate, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Of the 53 homeless people killed last year in the U.S., 20 were in California. Three of them were homeless men in San Diego. The accused assailant set some of his victims on fire during a series of assaults on homeless people exactly one year ago.
National Coalition for the Homeless Director Megan Hustings said the 125 attacks against the homeless across the country last year — both fatal and non fatal — is likely not an accurate number.
Hustings said that many of the violent attacks against homeless people go unreported because of poor relationships with police departments.
“Often, people are told to move on when they’re sleeping or sitting on sidewalks,” Hustings said. “There are a number of cities that have actually criminalized the act of laying down or sleeping outdoors. San Diego has had a fair share of criminalization of homelessness.”
The city’s leadership has come under fire by local and national advocates for backing sweeps on encampments.
City officials call the sweeps abatements aimed at keeping streets and sidewalks sanitary.
"It’s going out with environmental services," said Lt. Carole Beason of the San Diego Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team. "And what they’re doing is trying to clean up trash, debris from the sidewalks and the streets that would be unsafe. It’s about doing the cleanups and not a sweep. Their purpose is to keep the city clean."
People have to leave by 7 a.m. or risk getting a ticket from police. The practice includes removing people’s belongings.
McConnell said that kind of treatment by the city bleeds through and fosters violence against people without a home. He contends the effects touch everyone because serious injuries mean more emergency room visits by the homeless, many of whom are uninsured.
“It’s coming out of our pockets,” McConnell said.
And he said there is a moral component.
“The majority of people the data shows are people from our region,” McConnell said. “They are just our neighbors who are living on the street.”
McConnell says the cure for homeless violence requires a collective question to San Diego’s citizens.
“What kind of city do we want to be,” McConnell asked. “One that abandons our neighbors to our streets to be victims or one that actually takes care of people, brings them back inside to be our house neighbors?”
But instead, McConnell said he gets asked a different question when he aids the homeless: “People say, `Why are you helping people? You’re bringing pigeons to the park.' That’s how they described homeless people.”
Richard Stevenson called that attitude dehumanization. But he said most people who have a roof over their heads do not realize it is the human experience — albeit tragic ones — that put people on the streets.
Stevenson said he started living on a sidewalk after he was released from prison where he said he served time for killing his wife and son while driving drunk. He said he knows how he is viewed by onlookers.
“Bottom of the totem pole,” Steven said. “Dirty, careless. They label homeless people thieves, just some pests, period.”
Cheryl Taylor routinely camps out on her lawn chair on a sidewalk in downtown San Diego. She likes to wear pink bunny ears because she said they make her happy.
She was quick to point out that she has always earned a living. But she explained that she lost her apartment two years ago after quitting her job to take care of her daughter who suddenly started having seizures.
She said the people who live in the high rise across the street have never bothered to ask how she became homeless.
“There’s a couple of people up there that scream from the balconies `Bum get out of here. You’re just dirty trash. Why do you have to be here? You’re not welcome,’” Taylor said.
Jeannette Reynolds moved to San Diego in 2005 from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Eventually, she said she and her boyfriend ended up homeless when her rent got too high. After witnessing assaults on other homeless people and being a victim herself, she recited with pride how she dispensed her own street justice recently with a would-be attacker who pulled out a knife.
“I bent down and pulled a razor out and I told him, `You’re not going to take us down like that,’” Reynolds said.
California led the nation last year in attacks against people who are homeless, and San Diego accounted for five percent of those assaults, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
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