Violence and the Homeless: Some Tough Truths

Photo by Levi Clancy/CC-BY-SA-4.0

Whenever there are suggestions or efforts to aggressively abate street encampments, the cry goes out: “Don’t criminalize the homeless.” This ignores the fact that the homeless are committing a disproportionate amount of serious and violent crime. It is also true that the homeless are disproportionately the victims of such crimes.

The LAPD tracks crimes committed by and against the homeless, and the statistics for 2018 are stunning. Suspects categorized as homeless commit 12 percent of the city’s violent felonies while comprising less than 1 percent of its population. If these 32,000 homeless constituted one city, the crime rate would make it, by far, the most violent city in the United States.

This serious criminal activity continues to rise and is ignored in the discussions of homelessness. Our politicians, media and homeless advocates obscure the issue of rampant crime with claims that street encampments are primarily due to a lack of affordable housing. But this is not the primary cause of violent crime by the homeless. It is rather the toxic mixture of lawlessness, drug dependency and mental illness that prevails on the street that has propelled a high percentage of homeless to commit serious crimes — against other homeless as well as the general public.

While felony arrests of the homeless are rising, misdemeanor arrests are falling because arresting for these offenses has become a meaningless exercise. The 2014 enactment of Prop 47 eliminated the threat of a felony filing for serial theft or drug possession. It now makes little sense to use police personnel to make arrests when the suspect will be immediately booked and released or spend at most a few days in jail. Many of these suspects will later be arrested for serious and or violent crimes.

L.A.’s encampments spawn violence that includes rape, robbery, aggravated assault and murder. With thousands of homeless victimized by such violence and nearly a thousand dying of natural causes on the street, this emergency should outrage us; one that should beget dramatic and extraordinary engagement.

Sadly, it has been met with increased bureaucracy and misguided ballot measures. What must be done will be challenging, but there is no alternative. Thousands of new shelter units must be expeditiously built, providing individuals with clean places to live, along with the necessary security to prevent violence and theft by or against its occupants. Once built, those who now live on the streets will have the obligation to use them. In addition, extensive mental-health facilities must be constructed expeditiously to serve the mentally ill, and legal processes must be streamlined to allow mental-health professionals to treat the homeless who are treatment resistant. The punishment for serious drug possession should be amended and increased so as to provide incentives for addicts to engage in treatment in lieu of jail time.

There are those who resist the “emergency shelter paradigm,” dismissing it as “only a temporary fix.” They want nothing done if it isn’t a “perfect solution.” Some accept the homeless encampment status quo and use it to rail against the “unfairness” and “economic inequality of our society.”

This attitude is unfortunately held by many tasked to remediate the problem. It is time for leaders to confront the lawlessness associated with street encampments. If politicians continue to ignore the violence, health and fire hazards resulting from them, Los Angeles-area residents will be forced to seek redress in the courts and abate what has become a dangerous threat to our communities.

Longtime South Pasadena resident Joseph Charney was justice deputy for former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and is also a retired deputy L.A. district attorney, L.A. city attorney and adjunct professor of trial advocacy at Loyola Law School. He writes frequently on homeless issues, and has published articles in the Pasadena Star-News and