On a Sunday earlier this month, Freddy G. was dozing off with a book in his Echo Park tent when he was startled by the sound of a large vehicle’s engine revving up and speeding away. Seconds later, there was an ear-shattering boom!
As smoke swirled around him, Freddy—who has been homeless in the area for about four months and asked to be referred to by his first name—remembers “drifting between shock and reality” as he checked to make sure his two cats, Salem and Stranger Trouble, were OK. “Luckily…they’d pretty much been shielded from the explosion,” he says. “They were looking at me like, ‘Are you OK, dad?’ ‘Cause I was beyond it.”
Freddy, too, was unscathed, though the sound was so loud that he says employees from surrounding establishments rushed to his aid. Eventually, the police arrived, and determined that the tent had been hit by a firecracker. They found no evidence from witnesses or security cameras in the area that could help identify a suspect, and, according to a source at the LAPD, the incident is being considered an act of vandalism.
Freddy, who believes he was hit by something powerful like an M-80, says he doesn’t have any idea who is responsible, but he strongly suspects the act was meant to intimidate him. After some consideration, though, he has decided against relocating his tent—that would mean they won. “This is basically a form of terrorism, it’s a hate crime,” he says. “I’m not about to fold to these people.”
LAST NIGHT in ECHO PARK: someone drove by and threw an explosive device at our unhoused comrade’s tent, blowing a large hole in it.
— Street Watch LA (@StreetWatchLA) October 7, 2019
In recent months, homeless Angelenos and their advocates have voiced growing concern about targeted attacks against homeless people in the city, claiming there’s been a rise anti-homeless violence and harassment. In a Guardian investigation earlier this month, a reporter interviewed nearly a dozen people living in cars or on the street in L.A. who said they’d experienced instances of harassment, from having large objects hurled at them to getting hit by cars and having their property vandalized.
In one widely publicized incident in September, two men—one of whom is the son of Eagle Rock’s Chamber of Commerce president—were accused by police of setting fire to a homeless encampment in Eagle Rock; neither has been formally charged.
While the LAPD does not collect data on attacks targeted at someone because of their housing status, department data from the first half of 2019 shows that crimes against homeless victims have risen this year, spiking 36 percent year over year, while overall crime has dropped by 8.5 percent. Instances of aggravated assault against homeless individuals saw an even larger spike of 57 percent, while increasing only 0.5 percent citywide. During the same reporting period, crimes with a homeless suspect also rose 28.5 percent.
Donald Graham, Homeless Coordinator for the LAPD, says the department has not clocked a “measurable” increase in attacks motivated by anti-homeless sentiments. “Quite frankly, it’s not as high as I would have expected it to be, based upon the frustration level that you hear when you go to meetings and even the atrocious things that are being said on social media about people’s unsavory solutions to the homeless issue,” Graham says. He attributes the figures to the overall rise in homelessness in the region, a larger number of homeless individuals reporting crimes, and improvements to the city’s reporting methods.
But advocates believe there are other factors at play. Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, says he has definitely noticed an uptick in violence against the homeless in recent months. White says some of this violence is happening within the homeless community, as individuals in encampments try to regulate increasingly limited space. But that’s only part of the story.
“On the other side, of course, there’s more both violence and rhetoric in communities that are gentrifying,” he says. “Communities are turning in on themselves. There are virtual gates being placed, and a ‘them against us’ sentiment that is beginning to build.”
White says anti-homeless sentiment has been stoked by the rhetoric of city leaders, and the proposal of policies that criminalize the homeless. “A lot of rhetoric coming out of City Hall calls homeless people dangerous, and fuels this vigilante spirit,” he says. “It was Mitch O’Farrell who said that ‘danger lurks in these encampments.’” Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the LAPD is increasing the number of police patrols near the city’s Civic Center because homeless encampments have made some government employees feel unsafe.
White also points to debates surrounding L.A.’s “sidewalk sleeping” law. A recently proposed rewrite of the law, which was hotly contested by activists, would have banned homeless people from sitting, lying, or sleeping on sidewalks in large swaths of the city. After a tumultuous protest and city council discussion at city hall last month, the legislation was shelved.
Other advocates have pointed to social media’s role in fostering anti-homeless rhetoric in L.A. and beyond. “Recently we’ve started to see more and more of these what we call ‘vigilante’ groups, many of many of which started as Facebook groups or similar,” says Megan Hustings, managing director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s a lot of community action saying, you know, ‘The police aren’t taking care of this. The city isn’t taking care of that. We’ve got to take that take matters into our own hands.’”
Late last year, a “citizen patrol” planned on social media took to the streets of Long Beach to protest what participants called a “criminal element” in the area’s homeless encampments, spurring counter protests from activists. And in August 2018, Hustings and other nonprofit leaders filed a complaint with the California Attorney General’s office about police officers being members of a pair of private Facebook groups, using screenshots to evince violent rhetoric regarding the local homeless population. Hustings says they have been tracking several social media groups throughout the country.
Since 1999, the National Coalition on Homelessness has documented 1,769 acts of violence against homeless individuals by housed perpetrators nationwide, including 476 that resulted in death. According to the Coalition’s most recent report, California was home to 37 “bias-motivated” attacks between 2016 and 2017, the highest number of any state. Eleven of these were non-lethal, and 26 resulted in death. Hustings says it’s likely many others went unreported.
The Coalition has been pushing for these attacks to be officially considered hate crimes, especially as Hustings sees a shift toward more organized forms of harassment. “We talk about this through the lens of hate crimes because there is this ‘othering’ that happens so much,” says Hustings. “But poverty isn’t the fault of somebody who is poor—poverty and homelessness are the fault of a system that has not ensured that there is enough affordable housing for everybody.”
Currently, homelessness is not protected under federal hate crime laws in California. An assembly bill that would have made California the seventh state to list homelessness as a protected status—alongside Alaska, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Washington—received support from the Los Angeles City Council last year, but ultimately failed to pass. It remains open to reconsideration.
As for Freddy, he says he’s “still shaking a bit” after the explosion, but an organizer brought him a new tent to replace the one that was damaged, and he’s been doing a lot better. More than anything, he says, this experience has made him want to become an advocate for the homeless himself.
“They’ve basically made us second-rate citizens, and I was born [in L.A.],” he says. “I don’t see homelessness as a crime. To be demeaned because we are homeless—I just don’t see how that’s considered lawful.”
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