The first reports just before Christmas 2021 brought scant, scary details. A “suspected serial killer” named Willy Maceo had been arrested in Miami for “hunting” sleeping homeless people.
Jerome Price, fifty-six, had died after Maceo allegedly shot him five times from a car. (Price’s family learned of it on TV.) A second victim barely survived. A third attack (and second homicide) was linked.
Police gathered evidence. Mayors and police brass crowded podiums. Maceo’s gun, it emerged, had been confiscated by police but subsequently returned. Maceo’s social media accounts revealed a “dapper” real estate agent hawking pastel mansions, aquamarine seas, and palm trees.
In mid-January, the focus switched to homeless suspects. In widely covered murders in the nation’s two largest cities, Michelle Go was pushed in front of a New York City subway train by a homeless man; three days later, Sandra Shells was attacked and killed by a homeless man at a Los Angeles bus stop. Then, in March, the narrative flipped again. A balaclava-clad man was suspected of shooting five sleeping homeless people in New York City and Washington, DC. After an interstate manhunt, the suspect, Gerald Brevard III, was captured.
This string of stories connected homelessness and homicides. But what do they mean? Are killings of unhoused people getting worse? Do we have any data on this terrible trend?
Jacobin reached out to leading researchers Matt Fowle and Fredianne Gray, the Los Angeles Police Department (which has the best readily available data among police departments on homelessness), and eleven other police departments in the US cities with the largest homeless populations. Looking across the data, we see three big-picture trends: One, killings of homeless persons have been on the rise since 2010. Two, the pandemic era has brought a new surge in homicides involving homeless people. And three, contrary to the common perception, unhoused people are far more likely to be victims of homicides than perpetrators.
More Than One Thousand Homeless Homicide Victims
Since 2010, in fifteen large US cities, there have been more than a thousand killings of people classified as homeless, data compiled by Fowle and Gray show. Homicide deaths are only a fraction of overall homeless deaths, which total nearly 25,000 in those fifteen cities since 2010. But these killings are growing.
The rate of such homicides has been rising since 2010, when the total in all cities for which data is available sat in the low single digits. In 2020 and/or 2021, cities like Washington, DC, San José, New York City, Las Vegas, and Seattle saw double-digit unhoused homicide victims. In 2018, LA County recorded the highest one-year figure for any city, seventy-eight; in 2019, the most recent year available, it was seventy-three. All these deaths, Fowle writes, “should be considered an undercount.”
The jump in the homeless homicide rate over the last five years appears to outpace US population growth. The most recent available homicide rate among homeless people also outpaces cities with the highest overall homicide rates, such as Saint Louis. Las Vegas, Portland, and Miami have 2020 murder rates among unhoused people of roughly 200 per 100,000. That’s astronomically higher than the national average of nearly eight per 100,000.
If we look at the percentage changes between 2015 and 2020, we see increases of 514 percent in Santa Clara County (San José); 281 percent in Washington, DC; 110 percent in Miami-Dade County; and 93 percent in New York City. Maceo’s and Brevard’s alleged victims are hardly isolated cases.
Brian Davis, director of grassroots organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, says that violent attacks on homeless people are worse now than they’ve ever been. Davis’s organization has been documenting violence against people experiencing homelessness for decades, in 165 cities.
“Right now, sixty-five cities” — the highest number in decades — “are conducting sweeps on encampments, which only escalates the level of violence for those without housing,” Davis wrote in an email. There was a “significant decline in attacks” in 2020, Davis noted, but that was followed by a 2021 return to previous levels, then a higher surge.
More Victims Than Suspects
While limited, the police data we have confirms what medical examiners have found — and clarifies the picture of perpetrator and victim.
Figures from the Los Angeles Police Department show that people experiencing homelessness are roughly twice as likely to be victims as suspects. According to the city’s open data portal, which goes back to 2010, unhoused people have been victims in about two-thirds of homicides in which someone was identified as homeless (417) versus suspects in about a third (215).
Tellingly, an LAPD public records request for data since 2017 shows, if you remove homicides where both the victim and suspect are homeless — likely leaving more of the oft-sensationalized “stranger danger” cases — the proportion of houseless victims to suspects tilts further: 171 to 51, more than three to one.
The public-records request data confirms a rapid rise in annual totals of homicides involving a “homeless/transient” victim and/or suspect: from thirty-eight in 2017 to forty-four in 2018, fifty-two in 2019, seventy-one in 2020, and 106 last year — likely an all-time high. Going back further, to 2010, the portal’s data shows a similar recent spike: for 2010–19, the total homicides including a homeless victim and/or suspect was 364. Already this decade, it’s 268.
Two agencies shared numbers with me that seem to confirm a recent surge: In Denver, a police spokesman notes, fifteen of the ninety-six homicide victims in 2021 were homeless. In San Diego in 2020, Lt. Andra Brown notes, unhoused people were victims of four and committed three homicides; last year, they were victims in eight but committed just one.
The Crisis of Homelessness
Economic shocks like the 2007–8 Great Recession tend to drive up violence against homeless people. The current pandemic-era environment is “way worse,” Davis says, the worst in thirty years.
The tone set by elected officials also matters, says Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center. That includes New York mayor Eric Adams “telling people he’s afraid to go on the subways,” California governor Gavin Newsom proposing courts that are likely to increase involuntary commitments, and lawmakers proposing bills that criminalize homelessness.
“I really see all of this coming from a place of demonizing and othering of people experiencing homelessness,” Tars says. “We’ve let the crisis of homelessness get as bad as it has, and so people are just kind of desperate for any solution to get people off the streets.”
On one newspaper’s website, the NYC/DC serial shooter was cheered in the story’s comment section, the killings justified as a “solution” or “purge.” In Miami, Maceo’s tutorials on “3 Great Reasons to Buy a House” stand next to his alleged killings of houseless humans as a twisted monument to capitalist violence.
For now, those seeking solace can perhaps find a little in Maceo’s social media ratios: “I will have the homeless come back as Frankensteins and go after you, Mr. Willy,” one commenter writes.