The Demonization of Homeless People Is Killing Homeless People

Homeless people in the United States are far more likely to be victims of gruesome violence than to be perpetrators. Yet the widespread demonization of the homeless would lead you to believe the exact opposite.

A homeless man in San Francisco, California on May 16, 2023. (Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On the first of May, Jordan Neely — a homeless New Yorker chronically struggling with mental illness and addiction — had the breath wrung out of him by a several-minute-long choke hold administered by ex-Marine Daniel Penny, who was alarmed by Neely’s behavior on the subway. What exactly prompted Penny’s action differs between accounts: some witnesses said Neely was explicitly threatening other passengers, others that he was just particularly belligerent about demanding food. Whatever the case, by the time police got to the scene, Neely was dead and officers let Penny walk free, turning the incident into a national flashpoint.

To any normal human being, the whole incident was a sad and wretched microcosm of everything that’s gone wrong in modern American life: from the callous failures of political leadership and the rippling tragedies of endemic poverty, to the deep-seated need among lost young American men to find meaning in violent heroics. But that wasn’t enough for some, who soon worked to turn Neely’s killing into something that wasn’t just a regrettable outcome of the long-standing depravities of the unequal US economy, but an act that was necessary and correct, in part to combat a scourge of violent vagrants threatening innocent Americans up and down the country.

“Why are regular people just being asked to be heroes in the subway?” asked cultural critic Thomas Chatterton-Williams, adding that people shouldn’t be asked to “tolerate abuse or the possibility of assault.”

“Not a week goes by that a mentally ill person doesn’t get on and terrorize the entire car,” said Newsweek deputy opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon. “It’s working class New Yorkers who have to face down this violence.”

“What if Penny had done nothing? Would everyone — including Neely — have emerged from that subway car unscathed?” wondered David French. “We can’t know for certain, and that lack of certainty creates the conditions for violence.”

“It seems like this was justified,” talk-radio host Jason Rantz told Fox News, who said it was “fair to say” that Neely, as a “mentally ill homeless man with supposedly forty-plus charges who continues to harass people,” was a “threat.”

In short order, one of the United States’ two dominant political factions has not only used the sad and avoidable death of a desperately poor man to give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to vigilantism — it’s somehow turned the tragic episode into an elaborate justification of more attacks on the homeless.

One Murder of Many

Neely’s death is just the latest high-profile case of lethal violence being visited on the homeless in the United States. Take a look through local news reporting this year alone, and you’ll find story after story of strangers, some of them wearing law enforcement badges, killing homeless Americans — vivid examples of the regularly repeated maxim that those who live on the streets are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the ones carrying it out.

Just days before Neely was killed on the New York subway, a very similar murder caused a firestorm in San Francisco, where Banko Brown, a homeless transgender black man, was killed by a Walgreens security guard. The guard ultimately faced no charges, with authorities saying he had felt he was in “mortal danger” and acting in self-defense, after the unarmed Brown threatened to stab him and raised his arm toward him. But just-released (and highly upsetting) security camera footage of the incident shows that, after the two scuffled, the guard shot Brown as he was walking away and out the door with his back turned.

But even these two high-profile cases aren’t really reflective of the kind of dangers faced by the homeless, who don’t need to engage in minor lawbreaking or even seem dangerous to be targeted with violence.

This month saw a fifty-four-year-old Redwood City, California homeless man killed in a hit-and-run and a twenty-nine-year-old homeless man shot to death in the Las Vegas drainage canal tunnel in which he lived. (Lest those justifying Neely’s death feel a pang of compassion for the latter, rest assured that his girlfriend admitted that he was “damn near a felon,” giving plenty of potential ammunition for tortured justifications of that murder).

In a number of cases, the victims were cherished members of their communities. One homeless man, David Breaux, described as a “beloved presence” in the city of Davis, was one of three stabbing victims in the California city in one week, found dead on the park bench where he regularly slept. Greensboro man Lance Ross Williams, remembered as someone who would share what he had with those in need despite having nothing to give, and called “the kindest human I’ve ever met” by one local, was shot one morning in March and died from his injuries.

Sometimes all that is needed to trigger a murder is the crime of looking for shelter. One man was shot to death in Columbus, Ohio in April after a homeowner found him sleeping in his detached garage without his permission, something a local faith leader called “tragic and completely avoidable,” insisting that the man was “a gentle person” who would have left if asked. A Houston man was killed a month earlier, shot in the stomach while sleeping in a vacant building.

Some of these murders are truly stomach-churning: the Harrisburg man smashed in the head and face with a claw hammer and dumped in a stairwell; the man found dead from blunt force trauma to the head and neck under a bridge in Spartanburg, South Carolina; the Grand Rapids, Michigan man whose death was so grisly, police would only say that he’d suffered a “brutal homicide”; the Bridgeport, Connecticut man picked up and slammed headfirst into the pavement by someone who mistook his plea for assistance for a sexual pass.

Sometimes, they’re staggering in the casualness of their cruelty. One recent high-profile St Louis murder saw a man nonchalantly load a gun and shoot a homeless man he’d gotten into an argument with in the head as he sat on the pavement. Naturally, the same Fox News that declared Neely’s murder “justified” — calling Neely “a career criminal who was threatening subway passengers” and claiming that the charges brought against Penny for killing him shows “the lives of criminals are valued over law-abiding citizens” in liberal New York — conversely used the murder of this homeless person in St Louis to argue that crime is out of control because of woke prosecutors.

And some of the murders were carried out by the very law enforcement authorities who are meant to protect the most vulnerable, as two recently settled lawsuits illustrate, reminding us of the dangers of using armed police as catchall first responders in every type of crisis. One man suffering from schizoaffective disorder was stopped by Orange County sheriff’s deputies in 2020 while jaywalking, which quickly turned into a scuffle and his shooting death. The following year, Portland police officers escalated an encounter with an unarmed homeless man in the middle of a mental health crisis, immediately pulling out their guns and shooting him within five minutes of the encounter, then waiting seven minutes before getting him medical help while eating a pizza next to his dead body.

Aside from the two cases above, all of these incidents are from just this year. If you care to, you can go back and find many, similarly perverse acts of violence before this year, like the Nashville woman who got a year of probation for shooting a homeless man who asked her to move her Porsche, after she pulled up to where he was sleeping with her music blaring.

Homelessness Is Deadly

These cases are just vivid, human illustrations of what we can plainly see from the data available to us: that being homeless in America is incredibly dangerous and deadly, and is only getting deadlier.

According to Homeless Deaths Count — a project run by Matthew Fowle, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Housing Initiative at Penn — homeless deaths steadily rose from 6,345 in 2018 to 7,877 in 2020, the last year that was counted in the project. That included 346 deaths that year in New York City alone, where Neely was killed. Homeless deaths had shot up by 77 percent over the five years to 2020, according to a separate Guardian survey of local data from twenty US urban areas.

A research paper from the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute, which followed 140,000 homeless people counted in the 2010 Census for twelve years, found that non-elderly homeless have a risk of death three-and-a-half times higher than people who are housed, and a 60 percent greater risk than those who are simply living in poverty. Some of that rise is due to the onset of the pandemic in 2020, and drug overdoses remain the leading cause of death for homeless people under forty-five.

But, the paper notes, several studies also identify traumatic injuries from external forces, like car accidents, and homicide specifically as the second-most common causes. A separate 2022 study published in the JAMA Network Open medical journal found the same result after examining years of data on homeless deaths in San Francisco: While the proportion of overdose deaths has surged from 34 percent in 2016 to 82 percent in 2020, traumatic injuries, which include homicides, were the second leading cause of death in each of those years.

Yet even this outsize role of drug overdoses can’t be totally separated from the heightened risk of violence the homeless face. Multnomah County health officer Jenniffer Vines had told the Guardian that her office had anecdotal evidence that those living on the streets use meth to stay alert at night and protect themselves and their belongings, a claim backed up by this 2013 study of thirty meth users in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“One of the most fundamental perceived benefits of the alertness resulting from meth use for the participants in this study was the ability to cope with a multiplicity of vulnerabilities directly tied to homelessness or housing insecurity,” the study states. “Being out here living in the forest, to me, I’m vulnerable,” one of those interviewed told the study’s author. “If I go to sleep . . . I don’t hear nothing. That means somebody can slip up on me, you know.”

Couple that with the explosion in the prevalence of fentanyl in recent years, and it’s not surprising that deaths — particularly drug-related deaths — have soared among the homeless, especially in the parts of the country where it’s hardest to afford shelter.

In Los Angeles County, with the worst homelessness rate in the nation and where a family needs to earn six figures to afford average rent without living in hardship, the homeless mortality rate rose 55 percent from 2019 to 2021, with a startling 2,201 people dying in the latter year and fentanyl-related overdoses nearly tripling. In Orange County, the least affordable county in one of the least affordable parts of the country, fentanyl overdoses were the leading cause of the quadrupling of homeless deaths over a ten-year span.

Adding to this vicious cycle is the fact that even when meth isn’t laced with fentanyl, it can cause paranoia, psychosis, and various kinds of erratic behavior by those using it — making the kind of scenes that led to Neely’s murder much more likely.

The War on the Homeless

Needless to say, none of this means that homeless people never perpetrate violence themselves. That would be an absurd argument to make. But the way those justifying Neely’s killing are carrying on, you’d think that homeless Americans are intrinsically, universally violent, or even the ones responsible for the post-pandemic spike in violent crime — and not, as they actually are, the overwhelming victims of that violence, often at the hands of those who aren’t suffering from the same deprivations they’re struggling with.

This ugly narrative is part of a wider demonization and persecution of the homeless that’s on the rise across the country, whether in the form of the homeless encampment sweeps that have now become routine in cities, or the policy-based scapegoating and attacks by unscrupulous hacks like New York mayor Eric Adams, who has cut services to the homeless, banned them from sheltering in the subway, and is forcibly hospitalizing them. If policy makers are upset by the growing spread of homeless populations around the country but refuse to change anything about the status quo to try to fix it, it’s always easier to just force this human reminder of our political failures out of sight and out of mind.

The distressing scene that ended in Jordan Neely’s death should not be a regular occurrence in a wealthy country, as it is in so many cities across the United States today. The obvious solution is fixing the broken political economy that’s feeding the rise in homelessness, which government financial assistance and public investment have shown some success in doing. Encouraging vigilante heroics and law enforcement crackdowns is shameful and depraved.