Recent media attention to the teens who beat a homeless man in Milwaukee have that act of brutality back in the minds of many people, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Violence against homeless people is a disturbing trend that is on the rise all over the United States. According to data from the National Coalition For The Homeless, 101 separate hate crimes in the form of violence against the homeless occurred in 23 different states in 2004. Twenty-four of those crimes occurred in Texas.
According to the data, more hate crimes against homeless people occurred in Texas than in any other state in the union… a lot more. The state with the second highest rate was Colorado at 15 hate crimes; no other state had more than seven. Galveston, with 18 crimes, had more incidents than all of Colorado. Corpus Christi, with 5 acts, had as many as the entire state of California. This disproportionate amount of violence should serve as a wake-up call to our state that the attitudes people hold towards the homeless population here are dangerous…even deadly.
I work in social services and, though homeless services are not part of my practice area, I sit in a lot of community meetings where issues involving my community’s homeless population are discussed. I am usually very distressed by the tone of these discussions, which tend to focus on flushing homeless people out of the places where they have sought shelter out of doors and driving them away from any places where they might annoy people who are shopping. The homeless are talked about in the same breath as criminals and prostitutes and with a pest-eradication mentality that seems more appropriate for mosquitoes than for suffering human beings. The library has a sign on it that says that backpacks and bedrolls are not allowed inside, camping is restricted in all but a few places, police do “sweeps” to drive homeless people out of the areas they frequent, criminal trespass laws are used to keep people from taking shelter in neglected and abandoned properties and panhandling is prosecuted even when it harms no one and should be protected by free speech. The community’s feelings are clear…get out. But the homeless have nowhere to go.
When my ten-year-old was an infant, she started out being cared for in a daycare center run by the YMCA while I worked. The center was located near the intersection of several big streets and a busy shop area. It was not unusual to see people in the area who might have been homeless and one man, in particular, was around a great deal. The daycare director referred to this man as Moon Man because he spoke about his journeys to the moon when he was in the mood for conversation. He usually did not speak, but would always return a friendly wave. He looked like he was in his early forties, maybe, and was rumored to be the son of a prominent family. He hung around the big glass window at the front of the baby room, very much as if he thought he was guarding the babies from space aliens. I liked him. My daughter was only cared for at that facility for about four months before financial considerations shut them down, and my new daily commute did not often bring me near the man’s haunts. I went for years without seeing him, but that changed recently. Freeway construction caused me to change my route to work in the mornings and, driving along my new way, I started seeing the man that the former daycare director called Moon Man a lot again. Ten years on the streets had passed for him, though, and he looked like they had been hard ones. I remembered him and wondered if he remembered my baby and I. At first, I tried waving like I used to do, but I soon stopped as my greetings caused glares rather than smiles. Delusions about space journeys, if they were delusions, seem very tame compared to his current state of mind. He is clearly agitated and upset almost every time I see him. Once, I saw him having a knockdown, drag-out fight with someone who seemed invisible to me. He almost certainly needs some help that he is unlikely to effectively obtain in this era of poorly supported de-institutionalization.
I want to do something for this person, but I can tell that he is too agitated for it to be a good idea for me to approach him. He probably doesn’t remember me at all, as I was one of many mothers with babies at the old daycare center, but I think of him almost every day, troubled by my inability to bridge the gap between us. I really care, and I see him as a person as so much of the policy-making community seems not to, so if even I cannot find a way to reach across the class lines that separate us and do something for this person with whom I feel a connection, it is hard not to be discouraged. I do give donations to a local shelter on a regular basis and try to speak up when the homeless are not being spoken of with respect in community forums, but that seems so little to do. It does not help this man.
I am not sure how to solve all of the huge variety of issues that cause homelessness, although there are many we could do a great deal about right now. Of one thing I am sure, though: the culture that allows more privileged individuals to see people who are homeless as less-than-human nuisances has got to change. When one does not see someone as human, hate crimes are easy. History has shown us this in plentiful examples…race, gender, *** orientation, and now the homeless and many other groups. As long as their fathers and mothers speak of the homeless like vermin who could be bad for business, poorly reared teen-aged boys and young men are going to act out in the violent way they do when they believe they are superior and that there is no reason to fear reprisal. Recently, I heard a police commander give a report on “transient problems” and he made sure that he pointed out that the police were not doing “sweeps” anymore; they were just trying to help homeless people connect to community resources. It was a small thing, but such an important step in the right direction, and I was so grateful and said so. We have to create communities of compassion in which the public impulse is to support and succor, not to harass and drive away. Texas has a long way to go, and it begins with all of us.
Mariah Boone is a writer, mother, social worker, Texas historian and the publisher of Lone Star Ma: The Magazine of Progressive Texas Parenting and Children's Issues. To read more, go to http://www.LoneStarMa.com .