Mean Streets

The homeless life isn't just cold and hungry; it's also dangerous as hell

Santa Rita Park is hushed on brisk winter mornings, save for the low rumble of 22nd Street traffic. And on such mornings, the homeless wander this southside commons like silent druids, their tattered jackets shimmering with frost among the benches and tidy ball fields.

Among them is Thomas, who stands with hands stuffed into deep pockets. He's waiting for a nearby recycling center to open, to sell the cans in his full cart. That's his job. However, another chore is just staying safe. Like Tucson's roughly 3,000 other street people, he's been the target of epithets hurled and fists clenched. "Mostly the young ones," he says, "the teenagers. They're the ones that mess with you."

So far, Thomas has faced only threats. That ranks him among the lucky. Since 1999, the National Coalition for the Homeless has tallied 472 violent attacks on homeless children and adults, ranging from beatings to decapitation. In Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, homeless men recently suffered serial assaults by baseball-bat-wielding teens. In Sacramento, Calif., four homeless people were shot with BB guns. Similar attacks have occurred in Wyoming, Florida and Los Angeles, where youths reportedly were inspired by notorious Bumfights-style videos to prey on street people.

Another three attacks recently occurred in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., apparently carried out by teens for kicks. They were armed with everything from paintball guns to golf clubs.

This brutality also brushed Jim Young's life. It was late on Feb. 5, in a dark scratch of desert near Tucson's Triple T Truck Stop. "I was sleeping in my sleeping bag, and they shot me in the back," he says. "Afterwards, I heard them talking rap." He pauses. "It was a .22 hollow-point. The sheriff's deputy found the casing."

If not for the meager protection of a comforter and sleeping bag, Young might be a dead man. But even today, he's jumpy; a psychiatrist noted post-traumatic stress. "Anymore, I feel really vulnerable," he says. "I don't like turning my back on kids--I get on the bus, and if there are too many behind me, I get off and wait for the next bus."

In the late-'90s, former UA sociology professor David A. Snow helped chart violence against Tucson's homeless. The numbers were disturbing: 26 percent reported having been robbed; 37 percent were victims of physical assault; 7 percent were sexually assaulted; and 59 percent reported having something stolen.

"They are much more vulnerable ... to any variety of criminal victimization," says Snow, who now teaches at the University of California-Irvine. "If they don't spend the nights in the street, the vast majority of them are in the streets during the day--and often in areas that other people would define as somewhat risky."

Michael Stoops heads the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. He says people living on the streets are often attacked for who they are, much like gays or ethnic minorities. In response, the NCH is pressuring lawmakers to designate such attacks as hate crimes. Some states are now moving in that direction. "And we just had 25 members of Congress send a joint letter to the (Government Accountability Office) calling for a study on this issue," Stoops says.

At the same time, he blames harsh laws for making the homeless easier targets. "Cities can make it illegal to camp, to sleep, to beg," he says. "They make it illegal to be homeless."

But that's not the case in Tucson, argues Deputy City Attorney Laura Brynwood: "We try to focus on behavior rather than status, and we've got a lot of programs exactly designed not to criminalize or punish people for being homeless.

"On the other hand," she says, "the objective is to address problem behavior. If you have behavior that's affecting the quality of life in neighborhoods--whether it's drinking in the park or doing drugs--we will apply prosecution to stop that behavior."

Protecting the homeless, however, is a tougher challenge; no one caught the men who shot Jim Young. And the killer of Carlos Figueroa remains free. Three years ago, Figueroa was viciously beaten behind Pep Boys on South Sixth Avenue. The 52-year-old Navy veteran never regained consciousness and died two days later in the University Medical Center. "The doctors told me that he had shearing of the brain," his daughter, Diana Robledo, says. In other words, the force was so great that his brain turned to mush, "like an egg yolk that's been shaken."

Today, Robledo is operations supervisor for relief and referral at the Primavera Foundation, a homeless-assistance group. Her father, she says, was long divorced from her mother. He was a drinker who'd been on and off the streets for years. But that hardly lessens the pain. "My goodness, he was my dad," she says softly. "Just the other day, I was looking at a collage I'm making, and I have pictures where he's holding me as a baby. I have other pictures where he took us to an amusement park."

Justice can be elusive in such assaults, says attorney Brynwood. "They are harder to prosecute, because oftentimes, we lose contact with our victim, when that victim is transient or doesn't have a home address. It is definitely an impediment to effective prosecution."

Others contend the homeless are often reluctant to report assaults, either because they have outstanding warrants or simply mistrust the police. "I don't think poor people--and the homeless are the poorest of people--have faith in the cops," says Brian Flagg, of the southside Casa Maria soup kitchen. "Some of the cops really do look out for (homeless) people. Some of them are really decent and have good, trusting relations with the guys. But it cuts both ways."

However, Officer Dallas Wilson, of the Tucson Police Department, says the homeless are treated "just like everyone else. Some are comfortable (talking to police), and I assume some aren't. But we try to make everybody feel they can make reports, regardless of their social class."

Back at Santa Rita Park, Thomas is rustling about as sunlight creeps across the low-clipped lawn. He pauses, looking in either direction. "I stay away from places where there's trouble," he says. "That's the best thing you can do. Maybe it's the only thing."

He grabs his pack and begins a pilgrimage to the recycling center. But by dark, he'll be holed up in some undisclosed hideout. "I stay away from it all," he grumbles. Then he is gone.

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