As incidents of violent crime by the homeless grab headlines, activists urge caution and solutions

Experts say housing and health care are part of the solution.

February 05, 2022, 10:34 AM

Recent high-profile incidents of seemingly random violent crime allegedly committed by homeless people have been making headlines and putting city dwellers on high alert -- a harbinger for some of a return to more troubled times.

In Los Angeles, for instance, a 70-year-old nurse was killed during an alleged random assault by a homeless man at a bus stop on Jan. 13, and just two days later, a homeless man allegedly fatally pushed a woman onto New York City subway tracks.

In New York, where some of these attacks have occurred, the new mayor, Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, has promised to address public safety needs to ensure subway riders feel protected.

"Our system must be safe, must be safe from actual crime, which we are going to do and it must be safe from those who feel as though there's a total level of disorder," Adams said in a conference following several incidents in the subway system.

"Since Jan. 1 when I took the train, I saw the homelessness, the yelling, the screaming, early in the morning, rimes right outside of the platform. We know we have a job to do."

PHOTO: New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks at a candlelight vigil in Times Square for Michelle Alyssa Go, who was killed at the Times Square subway station last Saturday in New York, on Jan. 18 2022.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks at a candlelight vigil in Times Square for Michelle Alyssa Go, who was killed at the Times Square subway station last Saturday in New York, on Jan. 18 2022.
Ron Adar/SOPA Images via Shutterstock

Adams has said he would increase police patrols in the subway system, pair law enforcement officers with mental health professionals to perform outreach and reduce police interactions with the homeless in order to streamline mental health services.

However, many researchers say that homeless populations are often wrongly perceived as inherently dangerous and this stigma will only exacerbate ongoing issues of homelessness and poverty.

"The problem with [such characterizations of homeless incidents] is that when such blanket statements are made, it overlooks and consumes the very nuanced reality" of homelessness, said Joshua Ellsworth, a crime and victimization expert at Chatham University.

Mental health and homelessness

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were more than 580,000 people experiencing homelessness in America each day, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This number covers a diverse population of individuals and families living in shelters, on streets, in cars and more. It's not yet clear how much the pandemic has impacted the number of unhoused people in the U.S.

In his new public safety plan, Adams focused on the importance of health care and assistance in ending homelessness and instances of subsequent crime.

"Far too often, those critical periods where people have lost their jobs, lost their homes, or going through some form of health care crisis, if you don't reach them at that critical period, it would take a longer investment to turn their lives around and we want to do so at that critical period with proven methods and research," he added.

Law enforcement and government officials in major cities also say that recent incidents highlight a need for mental health care that targets the needs of this population.

About 30% of chronically homeless people have some sort of mental health condition and about 50% experience substance use problems, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

PHOTO: In this Jan. 18, 2022, file photo, a person holds a candle during a vigil in New York's Times Square, in honor of Michelle Alyssa Go, a victim of a subway attack several days earlier.
In this Jan. 18, 2022, file photo, a person holds a candle during a vigil in New York's Times Square, in honor of Michelle Alyssa Go, a victim of a subway attack several days earlier.
Yuki Iwamura/AP, FILE

Following the death of the nurse in Los Angeles, LAPD Chief Michel Moore called the incident "a tragic and senseless murder directly tied to the failure of this Nation’s mental health resources."

Homelessness and crime

People who are homeless are often disproportionately perceived as crime suspects and victims. But Steve Berg, the vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, says they are not behind a majority of the crime.

A 2016 report from the Washington Department of Commerce asserted that homeless people are no more likely to be criminals than those with homes, with the exception of camping ordinances.

And in Los Angeles, incidents involving the homeless as either the suspect, the victim or both made up less than a tenth of all crime in L.A, according to LAPD open data analysis by ABC station KABC.

Police departments in New York, Seattle, and San Diego say they do not readily collect and distribute data on homelessness and crime.

However, homeless populations across the country are more likely to be a victim of a crime than the general population, according to research in The Lancet public health journal.

"People are homeless are experiencing the greatest danger," Berg said.

In fact, homelessness is often criminalized and homeless people are over-represented in and adversely impacted by the criminal justice system, experts told ABC News.

Being homeless or impoverished means being susceptible to the many ways that life without a home is policed -- in camping ordinances, urinating in public, in panhandling, and other low-level crimes, Berg and Ellsworth say.

"Those low-level offenses that we would expect to see coming out of that unsheltered community will often be associated with survival techniques or subsistence behaviors," Ellsworth said.

Falling through the cracks

About 203 out of every 10,000 formerly incarcerated people are homeless, and nearly three times as many -- 570 out of every 10,000 -- is housing insecure, according to criminal justice research group Prison Policy Initiative. The formerly incarcerated are 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, the organization reports.

People who have been incarcerated more than once are 13 times more likely than the general public to experience homelessness, and people who have been incarcerated once are seven times more likely.

Those who were homeless in the year before their incarceration had high rates of mental health, substance use, and traumatic experiences, according to SAMHSA which reports: 79% of homeless people showed symptoms of drug or alcohol abuse or dependence; 75% showed symptoms indicating the presence of a mental illness; and researchers also found high rates of other physical and emotional trauma.

This means homeless people are often in and out of jails and prisons without rehabilitation for their mental illness or trauma, making it only harder to find stability, Ellsworth said.

"I met many individuals when I was doing field work that said 'every day is a bad day. You always wake up angry'" Ellsworth said. "What population gets exposed to more traumatic life events than somebody living on the streets in higher crime neighborhoods in a dense city?"

He added, "Not to mention that the weathering of being exposed with the physical elements but the weathering of the exposure to the psychological trauma of having to constantly be on guard because you're completely unable to control your environment."

PHOTO: Nursing student Samantha Mesa hangs a sign in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 19, 2022, with registered nurse Terri Thompson, right, in support of Sandra Shells at a memorial set up to her at the bus stop where she was attacked.
Nursing student Samantha Mesa hangs a sign in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 19, 2022, with registered nurse Terri Thompson, right, in support of Sandra Shells at a memorial set up to her at the bus stop where she was attacked.
Richard Vogel/AP

Need to address, experts say

Many experts say that the criminal justice system isn't addressing the issues of poverty, homelessness and mental health -- and solutions to crime must be multi-faceted to target these underlying conditions.

Without access to mental health resources and care, it's much harder to get people housed, employed and stable, says Rob Robinson, a formerly homeless man and advocate at Partners for Dignity and Rights, a New York City based human rights organization.

"When cities start pulling back investments in mental health services, people end up on the street," said Robinson, who is now a professor at the New School teaching about community activism. "A majority of people who are 'homeless' don't want to be that way. There are probably economic reasons why, there are mental health reasons that we need to think about putting resources into to help folks."

Berg says investments in housing, whether permanent or short-term, is the number one way to get people housed. A shelter, without any qualifying conditions such as employment or sobriety, often serve as a segue for an unhoused person to feel stable and in control, able to take on other challenges facing them.'

Research from the SAMHSA shows that providing access to housing without forcing residents to participating in specific services, has proven to be successful in keeping people housed and allowing them to more easily work towards addressing mental illness, substance abuse or other health issues.

Homelessness severely affects ones physical and social wellbeing, and increases the likelihood of disability, mental illness or death, SAMHSA reports. Researchers have found that improvements in mental health symptoms and treatment access followed one's introduction into a permanent or short-term home.

And at the root of this, is poverty. Experts say cash assistance and income support services give unhoused people the tools they need to build a happy and healthy life.

"We know what works," said Berg. "We have lots of evidence on what works. It's housing, it's getting a job, it's getting medical care that deals with whatever medical or behavioral health issues people have. We just need to do that."

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