A man experiencing homelessness in San Diego, Angelo De Nardo, died after being attacked on Moreno Boulevard on July 3, 2016. The assailant had set De Nardo on fire after driving a spike into his head and chest.
Another homeless man was critically injured in San Diego’s Midway District the next morning. A few hours later, on July 4 (“Independence Day”), Shawn Mitchell Longley, an unsheltered homeless man, was found dead in Ocean Beach. Two days later, a flaming towel was thrown on Dionico Derek Vahidy; a witness grabbed the towel off the 23-year-old homeless San Diego resident, but Vahidy died of burns four days later. On July 15, on 1800 C Street, Michael Joseph Papadelis, 55, one of the approximately 866 homeless individuals in San Diego’s East Village neighborhood, suffered severe injuries from apparent blunt force.
A Statewide Nightmare of Housing Deprivation
The most recent murders and beatings are just the latest in a long history of various forms of violence against homeless people in San Diego and throughout California, a state with the dubious distinction of leading the nation in housing deprivation.
California has the highest number of homeless people of any state in the US. According to the most recent US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the state is home to 26 percent of the country’s homeless, with the highest percentage — some 64 percent — ‘unsheltered,’ meaning they stay in places considered not intended for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, streets and abandoned buildings. The estimated number of homeless people in Los Angeles topped 28,400 in 2016, with some 46,874 in Los Angeles County, and San Diego County has over 8,600 homeless, with an estimated 5,093 residing in the city of San Diego.
Of the five largest cities in the US with the highest percentage of the total population homeless, four are in California. San Diego is fifth on that list, while San Francisco is number one.
Michael Storper, a UCLA professor and author of The Rise and Decline of Urban Economies: Lessons from Los Angeles and San Francisco, says that while it may seem intuitive to ascribe the higher rates of homeless in the Bay Area to the high rental costs associated with the tech boom, in fact there is no straightforward relationship between housing prices and homelessness.
Homelessness is “an economic and labor market problem having to do with unemployment and low incomes,” Storper told Truthout. “The core cause of homelessness is people who are not making it in the economy.”
In some ways, the severity of homelessness is worse in cities like Los Angeles or San Diego than in the Bay Area, Storper explained, because public expenditures per person are about one-third lower in Southern California than in the Bay Area. Cities in Southern California thus offer fewer of the services that can make a difference for homeless people.
California: A Case Study in Violence Against Homeless People
The National Coalition for the Homeless released a report in July 2016 showing the largest share of attacks on the homeless throughout the US in 2014 and 2015. A full 25 percent of the incidents documented occurred in the Golden State.
In early May 2016 two brothers accused of beating and kicking a homeless man to death went to court in San Diego County facing charges of murder and torture. And in late 2015 in San Francisco, a 100-pound elderly man with disabilities, Tai Lam, who was sleeping in an alley near a high-end shopping mall received a brutal beating from three young men.
Shooting, abusing and otherwise disrespecting unsheltered persons while riding by on bicycles has become another West Coast trend. Men on BMX bikes shot a homeless man in the foot along the Los Angeles River bike path in 2014, and that same year, Southern California-based BMX bikers posted a video online of them doing tricks involving individuals living in the street in Los Angeles, although nobody was physically harmed.
Michael McConnell, a homeless advocate and small business owner in San Diego, said so long as a city tolerates the structural violence of having large numbers of people unhoused, extra-legal violence against homeless people will remain a problem.
“You’re vulnerable,” he said about those sleeping unsheltered. “You’re lying out on the street, on sidewalks, in your car. You’re going to be susceptible to the violence. And if we dehumanize people, you’re going to be more susceptible because we don’t deal with our neighbors anymore.”
McConnell said San Diego — like cities across California — enacted a slew of policies that torment and criminalize the unhoused. Structures installed under overpasses designed to keep homeless people from setting up encampments, police “sweeps” that displace homeless populations and encroachment tickets that criminalize them, all exacerbate existing problems, he said.
The problems pervade cities across the state. The city of Palo Alto, where the typical rent is 2.5 times the national average and the number of shelter beds was recently recorded as fewer than 20, made sleeping in one’s own car punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail. Los Angeles enacted laws against loitering that disproportionately impact the homeless, and a section of Chapter IV of the city’s municipal code regarding restaurant establishments is actually titled “Annoyance of Customers Forbidden.” In the Bay Area, Oakland outlawed loitering in public places and instituted a city-wide ban on sleeping in the streets. San Francisco prohibits sleeping in parks at night, disallows encampments and criminalizes the use of vehicles for human habitation, much to the detriment of the homeless who have to live in their cars.
The law in San Diego enjoins citizens not to “annoy any person” along a sidewalk. San Diegans without housing are prohibited from sleeping in tents near the ocean overnight and banned from using a parked vehicle as an abode “either overnight or day by day.”
San Diego’s Contradictory Approach to Homelessness
San Diego officials have condemned the recent spate of extra-legal violence against homeless people in the city but have also defended the responses of the government and law enforcement to problems pertaining to homelessness.
Three years back, the city opened Connections Housing, a residential community designed to reduce street homelessness in downtown neighborhoods by providing 223 housing units, a health center and social services. Since 1999, the San Diego Police Department has operated a Homeless Outreach Team and a Serial Inebriate Program (SIP) to “connect individuals experiencing chronic homelessness directly to safe havens, transitional housing programs, local homeless providers or residential treatment programs.” The SIP, which is jointly funded by the county and the city, “follows the Drug Court Model and provides chronic homeless alcoholics a choice between incarceration and treatment.”
While the cost of living in San Diego still “exacerbates our homelessness problem,” law enforcement are treating the unhoused “with respect and professionalism,” said city councilmember Todd Gloria, who observed that officers “canvassed our homeless” in the wake of the recent wave of attacks.
Police “sweeps,” also known as “abatements,” however, continue.
“Abatements are part of the city’s normal operations to keep neighborhoods clean and safe,” a public information officer told Truthout on behalf of the city.
Anne Rios, the director of Think Dignity, an organization involved in grassroots advocacy and activism with the homeless, said that the constant displacement of and hostility toward unsheltered people creates a volatile climate. “The serious wave of criminalization that has been exerted onto the homeless simply for being poor is incredibly discouraging and reinforces an ideology of ‘us’ against ‘them’ — haves versus have nots.”
Beyond San Diego, homeless individuals across California allege that police have intensified an already hostile climate and caused additional harm. A homeless man filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 2015, asserting officers had hog-tied and hit him when he refused to sign a citation ticket issued on Venice Beach. A homeless man in the Bay Area also filed a claim last year alleging that a sheriff’s deputy beat him at San Francisco General Hospital.
Living With Constant Insecurity
In a small homeless tent village on the sidewalk on G Street in San Diego’s East Village, a woman who goes by the name “Pebbles,” speaking from inside her makeshift shelter, told Truthout that she is used to living unhoused but doesn’t want to do it anymore.
“I’m tired of being robbed,” Pebbles said. It is not only certain citizens who attack homeless people and steal from them, she noted, but also public services like the California Department of Transportation.
“Caltrans [the California Department of Transportation] just takes your shit and throws it away,” she said, explaining how security staff sometimes confiscate the belongings of homeless people who are kicked off the buses, trains or trolleys in San Diego.
Pebbles said she ended up homeless after serving 18 months in prison several years ago. “Sleep with your stuff, basically,” she advises others facing similar circumstances.
McConnell, also an East Village native, said that as homelessness is aggressively criminalized downtown, displaced homeless persons relocate to other areas of the city, which prompts businesses in those neighborhoods to fight back.
“So you have community pitted against community,” he told Truthout, lamenting how it now comes down to who has the most clout in City Hall, who can exercise the most influence on police and who can hire the most security.
About three miles from the East Village, in the Hillcrest neighborhood, where flags on street posts and signs atop businesses read “Happy Pride San Diego,” “We Are One” and “#EQUALITYFORWARD,” business owners have banded together against homeless people.
The local Business Association’s ‘Clean and Safe’ campaign states:
Homeless people act in anti-social ways and drive away customers. Homeless people are drawn to Hillcrest because of the proximity of the neighborhood to Balboa Park, the local hospitals and the generous nature of the neighborhood. As a business owner, the last thing you want to do is have to deal with a problematic homeless people [sic]. This website is designed to help you better engage with this population and prevent them from disrupting your business.
Businesses in Hillcrest hired a private security company, City Wide Protection Services, to “handle” homeless people in the area. Accompanying a photo of two of their private officers in the process of removing a homeless man from a Hillcrest establishment, a post on the company’s Facebook page notes, “This is how we handle business. Great team ready to serve the community.”
They “have us keep on moving,” a woman who identified herself as Rachel told Truthout, describing how police and private security alike address local homeless people like herself. Like others experiencing homelessness in San Diego, she expressed as much concern over the authorities as she did about the recurring extra-legal attacks. With her two dogs, Stony and Buttercup, a pit bull and a chihuahua, Rachel was resting on the corner of University and Fourth Avenue, outside Luna Grill, in the late afternoon on Saturday, July 23, until a City Wide officer on her rounds forced her to relocate.
The following Friday, Rachel and two of her friends, also experiencing homelessness, were in the same spot. It was not private security that displaced them that evening, but the San Diego Police Department. Officers pulled over to the side of the narrow street and started questioning the three outside Luna’s as wealthier San Diegans munched on organic spinach and enjoyed delicately grilled-to-order mahi-mahi inside. After a few minutes, Rachel and her friends were forced to leave.
Within 20 minutes, another homeless man, Aleksandr Karaoglanov, had taken their place. He wore a dirty white short-sleeved shirt that evening with green sweatpants that read “TENNIS” along the thigh and Adidas shoes with no laces. Karaoglanov moved from Russia to San Diego with his wife and kids in 1993. He has been on the streets for three years, he said, and he ended up unhoused after going to jail, losing his job, getting kicked out of his apartment and having police confiscate all of his belongings following a dispute he had with his ex-wife.
“I can’t sleep [near] any business,” he said, lamenting, “I got to go somewhere — Balboa Park, trees — somewhere around the tree… This [is] not right.”
Having sat down near the street corner, Karaoglanov commenced eating the Chinese takeout someone gave him, sipping soup with rice as he spoke. He offered up his fortune cookie, whose message inside read: “Act as if it were impossible to fail.”
Pushes for and Against Hate Crime Legislation
The National Coalition for the Homeless now advocates hate crime legislation that would include homeless persons as a protected group with “the full protection of the law.” The primary purpose of such legislation is to “punish and deter individuals from committing bias-motivated crimes” against unhoused people. Hate crimes legislation generally lengthens the prison sentences of those convicted of offenses that fall within its designation.
But other activists argue against increased police involvement, pointing out that there are other ways of dealing with violence besides lengthening people’s prison sentences. Mary Acosta, program director of the San Diego-based Restorative Justice Mediation Program, said she would be happy to facilitate an initiative that focuses on accountability of offenders toward the unhoused and communities affected by the harm, as opposed to emphasizing carceral punishment of perpetrators of violence against the homeless.
“It would have to be the society embracing a program that would be an alternative to incarceration for those offending parties — for the offenders — to participate in a restorative process in lieu of prosecution or time in jail,” Acosta said.
The notion of a “Homeless Bill of Rights” has gained traction in other states as a way to address the many problems homeless populations face. Missouri previously proposed legislation that would enact homeless hate crimes provisions but also counteract laws targeting the homeless while encouraging greater access to shelter and social services.
Meanwhile, the California legislature passed Penal Code 13519.64, which provides for law enforcement training regarding homelessness and calls for data collection related to housing deprivation.
Craig Willse, author of The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States, who worked as a homeless advocate in Los Angeles before becoming an academic, remains critical of proposed hate crime legislation and of the tendency to reduce homelessness to cost-benefit analyses through constant counting of populations for purposes of managing them.
“I think hate crime legislation has proven to be a failed approach — it does not protect vulnerable groups, but does strengthen a racist police and prison system,” Willse told Truthout. “Those laws do not keep people safe. And while individual acts of violence against people living without shelter must be stopped, these kinds of laws, by turning attention to individual perpetrators, turn attention away from the real and systemic source of violence — the state and capitalism.”
In his book, Willse unpacks the invention of “chronic homelessness” as a category and the initiatives that accompany it. “The proliferation of chronic homelessness programs, the circulation of funding, the commissioning of studies and reports — all of this forms part of the nonprofit industrial complex, where the post-social state meets postindustrial service and knowledge industries,” he writes. “Contrary to the rhetoric that associates ‘the homeless’ with waste and cost, housing insecurity and deprivation prove to be sites of economic productivity in which individuals organized as ‘chronically homeless’ become the raw material out of which studies and services are produced.”
Those initiatives remove homeless people from places where they might impede consumerism, Willse explained, and simultaneously invest in a nonprofit industry of population management — one with adverse effects for challenging the conditions responsible for the creation of homelessness in California and beyond.
“The social services approach to homelessness has had a depoliticizing effect — so we deal with individual cases rather than the big picture,” Willse told Truthout. “And I think linking those movements to movements against policing and prisons is a key next step.”