Hundreds of homeless people around the U.S. are the victims of violence just because they are homeless, according to a survey published last year. And in Albuquerque, police say 15 people who were experiencing homelessness were killed in 2017.
Three of those deaths—all stabbings—stand out to Sgt. Elizabeth Thomson, who spoke to Albuquerque Journal reporter Elise Kaplan. The sergeant says the killings may be linked, and the same person or group of people could be behind them.
KUNM talked to Jenny Metzler, the executive director of Healthcare for the Homeless, about the high rate of violence against people without shelter and the Journal’s report.
METZLER: You know when I read the story this weekend, I was actually slightly shocked that we didn’t know more about it. We usually hear things that are happening on the streets with the people that we serve. There is so much violence on the streets. Living in public space, people are so vulnerable and so exposed for so many reasons. And we know that they are often victims of crime. It’s always disturbing to us. But this was chilling to think that there might be some sense that this is a serial sort of thing.
KUNM: We know that sometimes homeless folks don’t call police when they’ve experienced a crime. They’re one of those populations that feels a lot of fear about police interaction, right? How do you think that impacts something like this?
METZLER: I think it makes it supremely hard to investigate. And I think just anecdotally in the last few days since the story came out, talking to our staff who are out the in the field—they’re on the streets, they’re talking to people, people are coming in, they generally keep a pretty good sense of the pulse and what’s going on—that we’ve hardly heard anything about this makes it really hard to get a handle on what’s going on. This would be a tough one to investigate.
KUNM: So Sgt. Elizabeth Thomson also says in the article that 15 people who were experiencing homelessness or who were kind of in and out of motels were killed this year just in Albuquerque. Does that come as any surprise to you?
METZLER: It’s the tragedy. Living on the streets, we say this really bluntly and not with any disrespect for people whose lives are lost, but experiencing homelessness will make you very sick and it will kill you. The levels of trauma are very high, higher than the general population. Generally we know that people on the streets experience violent victimization more often than people who are living in the general housed population and are living even in extreme poverty.
KUNM: People who are living on the streets are in a more vulnerable situation, and maybe just by the nature of being of being on the streets are in some ways more accessible. But what else do you think contributes to the high rates of violence against people experiencing homelessness and then also the extreme brutality of these crimes?
METZLER: I think you’re right. They are really really violent generally. I think the exposure. I think the lack of understanding of people’s circumstances and the fear of “other,” we often say. Someone’s in your alleyway out in the street. You don’t know them. They haven’t been able to bathe. They can’t just get off the streets. You don’t quite understand. I think there’s a certain level of fear, and I think that some of that fear, and then also, honestly, a very contentious and polarized political environment and social environment that the more we experience that, we all bring it into our lives. And so I think that heightens people’s responses, escalates them, and people experience violence.
KUNM: The city just passed a law making panhandling illegal. Do you see a connection between criminalizing some of the activities associated with people experiencing homelessness and the dehumanization of them?
METZLER: I do. I think people are often well-intentioned with the local ordinances that ultimately criminalize homelessness and poverty, and the behaviors of surviving in public space—well-intentioned but maybe misguided. And we always look from a public health as much as a public safety perspective—we are Healthcare for the Homeless—really look at what are the underlying circumstances or social constructs and determinants of the situation and how is it affecting people’s behaviors that can do risk to themselves or to others. And so if we put it in a public health context and we really look at what should address homelessness and all the ancillary survival behaviors that go with that, it’s getting people housed.
And so we say, “You can’t do this, and you will be ticketed or cited or put in jail,” and it triggers a series of sort of workarounds the workaround. What we know works is getting people housed. And we can get them and keep them housed, and they immediately reduce the morbidity and mortality risk.
The police are looking for any information people might have about the stabbings of three homeless men in Albuquerque between May and September this year. Reach out to Crime Stoppers by calling 843-STOP, or call 242-COPS.