November 12, 2008

Human Faces, Lost in the Statistics

By T.J. Johnston, Newsdesk.org

Main article: “Attacks on Homeless Excluded from Crime Data: Advocates”

Since 1999, when the National Coalition on the Homeless, started releasing yearly figures on attacks against people without housing, it has claims to have tracked 774 violent acts against homeless men, women and children in 235 cities throughout 45 states and Puerto Rico. Of these attacks, 217 were fatal.

Newsdesk.org took an up-close look at four individuals made victims by this violence in 2007 — and found real human faces lost in the statistics.

New York: “Quality of Life”

Before David Pirtle found housing in 2006 and became an advocate for the National Coalition on the Homeless’s speakers bureau, the former restaurant manager spent two-and-a-half years homeless in New York City.

One autumn night in 2004, Pirtle was sleeping in an abandoned stairwell. A group of possibly intoxicated teens woke him by beating him with a baseball bat. His teeth were knocked out and his ribs broken.

He never reported his injuries to anyone.

“Homeless people normally stay away from the police,” he said. When other homeless people he knew reported their assaults, there was never any follow through.

“I think the main reason homeless people are targets is because we’re easy,” Pirtle said. “The more you dehumanize a group of people, the easier it is to justify attacking someone.”

The NCH asserts that homeless people are dehumanized when quality of life laws are passed and activities associated with homelessness are criminalized; New York City was a pioneer of this approach under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

San Francisco: “The N Word”

“When a hate crime happens, it’s a result of someone not really taking enough time to use deep insight of some heavy political issue,” Willie Warren, 53, of San Francisco said, taking stock of the beating he suffered on Sept. 2, 2002, when he was homeless.

Warren has been a longtime civil rights volunteer with the Coalition on Homelessness (the San Francisco group is not affiliated with NCH).

He believes his injuries were borne of animosity toward homeless activists, as well as race and class prejudice.

That Labor Day weekend, Warren walked past a bar in the Tenderloin neighborhood on his way to KFC. He greeted a woman he recognized, then heard someone address him by the N-word.

At 6-foot-5 and almost 300 pounds, Warren wasn’t easily intimidated. He observed two muscle-bound men — one slightly taller than Warren — who were intoxicated.

“They looked like they work out at Gold’s Gym,” he said. Still, he tried to defuse the situation.

“Why are you saying this when I don’t know you?” Warren said to them. In the ensuing verbal exchange, he mentioned his work with an organization campaigning against a city ballot measure to reduce welfare benefits to homeless people.

“You represent those sorry-ass people?” Warren recalled taller man saying.

The other man tried to grab him from behind, but Warren fended him off with his backpack. Before he could get his pepper spray, Warren was struck with a wooden object about one foot long and almost three inches in diameter — he thinks it was a mop handle — and lost consciousness.

He was treated for his injuries, including a lump over his left eye. He also had headaches for a week and needed Vicodin to sleep. He made a full recovery, when his doctors said he only had a 3 percent chance.

Police later told Warren they had a description of both attackers and the location in South San Francisco where a taxi dropped them off. His attackers remain at large, but Warren is not deterred from his advocacy.

“If you thought I was a homeless advocate then, watch me now,” Warren said.

Cleveland: “A Welder by Trade”

Anthony Waters avoided walking on Cleveland’s major streets mainly as a survival strategy: 10 of Ohio’s 13 homeless attacks last year happened in Cleveland.

A welder by trade, Waters stayed at the 2100 Lakeside Men’s Shelter since April. Staff remember him as a loner – polite and well-spoken — who tried to get sober. Occasionally, he would visit his mother’s house six miles away.

He was on his way to his mother’s on June 25, taking a shortcut through an industrial area. Around 9:15 p.m., at least three teenage males wearing white T-shirts jumped him – one had what appeared to be a BMX bicycle.

A surveillance video from a nearby towing company recorded the beat down while a 911 call was made.

His ribs fractured and spleen lacerated, Waters died at the hospital. He was 42.

Police retrieved a bicycle resembling the one on tape, but haven’t found the attackers.

San Francisco Bay Area: “Bolinas Border Patrol”

Ricky Green, 32, left behind his career as a graphic artist for a self-described “spiritual journey” that took him to Bolinas, Calif. where he lived outdoors.

On June 23, Green faced down a bunch of young men at Brighton Beach for harassing another homeless man.

“I stand up for my truth,” Green told Newsvine.com. “And because I stand up for my truth with such authority — people tend to get offended.”

Marin County deputy sheriffs said the group, who had been drinking, stabbed him and hit him with a skateboard, a flashlight and bottles.

Green was found in the bushes, bloodied and half-conscious. He was airlifted to a hospital 50 miles away, where he spent two weeks recovering.

Green later told the press he was surrounded and blinded by headlights before the beating. By Green’s accounts, the group was part of a self-styled “Bolinas Border Patrol” who hated outsiders. The skateboard police found had the initials BBP written on it.

Five people, ages 16 to 22, pleaded guilty to assault. A sixth is facing trial for attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault.

One thought on “Human Faces, Lost in the Statistics

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