Saturday, January 14, 2006

Kill some time, kill a man.

Police are today looking for a group of attackers, apparently kids out amusing themselves, who murdered a homeless man by beating him to death.

Police say they will seek murder charges against the attackers who beat a sleeping homeless man to death are suspected in two similar attacks in the city a few hours later.

The first attack was caught on a university surveillance video before dawn Thursday. Police were looking for two to four young men.

"It's senseless. If you look at these kids, it was almost like it was fun and games for them," Officer Scott Russell said....

Norris Gaynor, 45, who was later attacked as he slept near the Broward Center for Performing Arts, died from his injuries at a hospital Thursday, police said. The other victims, both hospitalized in serious condition, have not been identified.

The video from Florida Atlantic University shows two men chasing and beating a man who had been sleeping on a bench. "It looked like they were going for the head," Detective Katherine Collins said.

The 58-year-old man found a security guard, who called for help, and the victim was hospitalized with head trauma and defensive fractures, authorities said.

Gaynor was beaten about 90 minutes later in a chillingly similar attack.


This is in fact quite a common story. The only reason this time has garnered so much attention is that it was caught on video cameras.

According to the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless, 386 homeless people have been attacked nationwide since 1999, resulting in 156 deaths.

Many of the attacks have involved weapons, such as knives and bats, while others have involved straightforward beatings with fists or with feet. What is disturbing though is that the profile of the attackers often is like those who are being sought in this case-- young, usually white males who apparently are looking to amuse themselves. In one case last year, the teens had been watching a copy of the video 'bumfights,' which was made by people who had paid homeless people to fight with each other, and then distributed 300,000 copies. The video was criticized for 'dehumanizing' homeless people. Apparently correctly. It is hard to imagine what must be going through minds of these youths (who often, when caught, it turns out have come from relatively affluent families) who try to kill an afternoon by killing a man.

Now, the life of a homeless person is already a very difficult one, even without these two legged wolves out prowling the streets. With no job, and no permanent address, it is difficult to get a job that will allow one to have a permanent address. At this time of year, we are continually reminded that the number of beds in shelters is less than the number of homeless people, so even on the coldest nights, some will be sleeping outside (if 'sleeping' is the word for it) and in some cases they have been found later frozen to death.

Of course, when funding for housing for the homeless was cut during the Reagan administration, conservatives liked to talk about how the homeless were that way 'by choice.' Now, it is true that there have always been a handful of hobos out there, who do choose to live as hobos. But that is not the case with most homeless people, who would give anything for a home but don't have one. Further, in many cases, these involve families with children. Now, how does a CHILD make a 'choice' to be homeless? If I made my kids sleep outdoors on cardboard boxes, I am sure that CPS would be here and would take them away in short order and place them in foster homes (which would be absolutely what they should do in that case). Additionally, more and more cities and towns are passing ordinances which simply make it against the law to be homeless (not in so many words, but they spell out that it is illegal to sleep in any place where homeless people might be sleeping, hoping to drive them out and over to the next town.) And this includes liberal cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles just as much as it includes conservative ones like Houston and Sarasota, Fla. (The entire list of the 20 'meanest' cities for the homeless is here, and clearly no single region, size of city or political ideology has a monopoly on meanness). Further, there are many causes for homelessness. It can be due to mental illness, drug or alcohol dependency, chronic unemployment, losing a job and being unable to find another one, leaving prison with no place to go, or just plain bad luck. With the changes in the bankrupcty bill, it is now possible for millions in the middle class to become homeless simply by having a major medical expense which they can't pay, having the court take their house and sell it to pay the medical creditors, and then ending up on the street. And out of the millions who are now living on thin ice and don't even recognize it, there are thousands who it will happen to.

Further, the whole 'choice' thing, together with the 'private charity' and 'personal responsibility' angles, are twin cop-outs on the part of Republicans who simply put would prefer more tax cuts for the rich than to have to worry about homeless people. We discussed choice above. As to the 'private charity' argument, I commend them for the work they do. But if they were completely solving the problem, then there would be enough beds in shelters. There are not, and this time of year you always hear about how the shelters are full and some people don't get in. Case closed, it is too big a problem for private charities to solve. As for 'personal responsibility,' I am not denying that some (though not all) homeless people have made their own path to where they are now. However, not all have, and to use the ones who have as an excuse to help nobody is incredibly callous. And it is not our place to judge between them-- God can judge who and how he will judge, but it is our place to simply provide what we can to help our brethren. (and yes, about 75% of adult homeless people are male, so that word is largely accurate here.) Insofar as we can do it with private donations and through private institutions, I have no problem with those charities continuing to do the job that they do. But we also need the Government to be involved, just looking at the numbers who are outside of this system of charities.

Ultimately, Government has a duty to defend its citizens. Homelessness is a threat to our society and many citizens. And we have an obligation to defend against it just as surely as we would protect against a threat by any foreign power.

5 comments:

lily said...

Eli,
Great post. I worked in homeless programs and mental health programs for many years and they are quite an ignored population, which is shameful in a country as boastful and consumptive as ours. In the years you mention, I worked in programs going through the downsizing of institutions, ostensibly for least restrictive environment reasons...but the money they saved on institutions that was meant to go into community based care didn't seem to make it there as intended. There are still real dilemmas and barriers, such as transportation (a joke where I live) and providers willing to take medicaid for services they need.
Well, I could rant your eyeballs out here in the comment box. I suppose your post today touched me because of my experience and my frustration about our ineffective remedies. Thank you for addressing this topic.

Shayna said...

The stupid kids finally turned themselves in. This just sickens me. How can anyone do this to another living soul? Great post.

Eli Blake said...

Lily:

Then you've seen how we've gone from a society where everyone who needed a place to live had something, to a society where they were cast out into the cold, to a society of neglect, to finally arrive at this point, where children consider them fair game to beat with a bat.

Shayna: They did. Two of them anyway (the police are saying there may be two additional attackers). And the video was apparently key (put the word out on the street-- with the proliferation of public and private security cameras, be sure to find a place to sleep that is in view of one).

What I hope they do during the trial is focus in on why these kids thought it was acceptable to do this in the first place. They (nor all of the others involved in the hundreds of attacks on homeless people) did not suddenly learn this kind of thinking in a vacuum. If these kids watched the 'bumfights' video (very possible with 300,000 copies out there), then someone, either the men who were beaten, the family of the man who was killed, the hospital (which has some costs to cover) or the State of Florida should sue the producers of the video; The First Amendment does protect their right to put that kind of filth out on the street, but nowhere does it protect them from criminal liability for the damage that their product has caused. It might send a warning to anyone who is considering putting a similar product out there.

On the other hand, if they were taught that homeless people were less than fully human and were deserving of this kind of fate around the dinner table growing up, then that should also be brought out, in the hope that the publicity will prevent some other set of parents from saying something like that. Those who claim that there is no danger in teaching children their own prejudices are not living in the real world.

Lily said...

Yes- thats my take too.

Children often reflect the society around them, which isn't to say they are not accountable. But we perpetually devalue others then act shocked when children adopt this mindset.

Barbi said...

How disgusting that those "kids" have little regard for other human beings. This yet is a situation where I wish the punishment would fit the crime. And daily...for a very long, long time.

Who do we blame here? Have the parents failed? The educational system? Or are some people just bad evil seeds, no matter what?

Okay ... backing away from the keyboard. Again.