Remembering Sunshine

As friends mourn the death of a homeless woman, advocates find violence all too common

A crowd of homeless people gathered outside the Casa Maria soup kitchen one bright Sunday morning for something to eat. The sweet smell of sugar wafted through the air as a woman plunked down a tray of cupcakes coated with electric-blue icing.

Tacked to a wall near the tray was a sheet of paper announcing a memorial service for the woman known as Sunshine.

With few exceptions, people pretty much kept to themselves or their small groups, speaking in hushed tones and keeping up their guard out of necessity. But when they did talk to an unfamiliar person--like me--they had a lot to say about the woman who was found murdered on Tuesday, June 12, behind the downtown law offices where she had permission to sleep.

Although Sunshine, whose real name was Lillian R. Wright, was known for staying close to downtown, many people at this soup kitchen in South Tucson had crossed paths with her and were impressed by her generosity.

One man named Kevin recalled that Sunshine was a vodka drinker who gave him part of the money after he cashed a check for her. Another man found it hard to fathom any motive for the killing.

"I don't know why they did that to her," he said. "She'd give money to them--all they had to do is ask."

They also had a lot to say about the violence that's a regular part of living on the streets.

Fights between homeless people--generally involving alcohol--are one thing. Lt. Jeff Coleman, assistant commander for the Tucson Police Department downtown division, said that's the type of call authorities receive most often, with about one a week.

Comparatively, it's "very rare" for TPD to receive calls about people who aren't homeless assaulting those who are, Coleman said.

However, the National Coalition for the Homeless produced a study that tallied reported incidents in 2006; the 142 documented crimes across the country represented an increase of 65 percent from 2005, and more than 170 percent from five years ago.

Most chillingly, teenagers and young adults were responsible for a fair number of particularly vicious attacks, "for no apparent reason other than boredom," the NCH press-released. One of the most appalling recent examples was a 10-year-old boy in Florida who hit a homeless man in the face with a slab of concrete.

"It's a problem across the country," said Bill Magnotto, outgoing chairman of the Tucson Planning Council for the Homeless. "I was at a conference in Washington, and it was discussed wanting to make it a hate crime."

While it's not clear at this point who killed Sunshine, or why she was killed, her death does shed light on the fact that there are a lot of homeless people out there who are being hurt.

Diana Robledo runs a drop-in program for the homeless through the Primavera Foundation. She sees wounds every day: on a woman sleeping in a Tucson park who woke up to several young men and women beating her up; a man who came into the center with his arm wrapped and bloodied, but didn't want to talk about what happened to him; a stabbing victim who required a 10-day hospital stay.

Recently, Robledo interviewed a man with 10 staples in his head after he was attacked with a hammer. These incidents stir up painful feelings for her, because her father, who was homeless, was beaten to death with a baseball bat two weeks shy of his 53rd birthday four years ago.

"I promised him I would do something to be a voice for the homeless and to help him out," Robledo said. "To hear on the news or by word of mouth that somebody else has died, it just brings a chill to me every time."

Many homeless people at Casa Maria recounted stories of capricious acts of violence against them that have gone unreported.

Kevin said he's been jumped and pelted with rocks. He knows of people who have been stabbed.

A man named Wayne said he's often confronted by groups of young men who try to demonstrate their masculinity by roughing up the homeless.

Ray, who was sitting near Wayne reading a book, said he calls such groups "cowardly gang members," because they aren't man enough to pick fights on their own.

None of them said they've gone to authorities after these incidents.

"Shit, you know nothing ever comes of it," Kevin said. "If you're homeless, you're a peon."

David, who was sitting with Kevin and three other men, was more diplomatic.

"Half the time, you don't know who it is, and you don't have an address for a follow-up," he said. "I'm sure they'd do something if they could."

Robledo said she's not sure why people would target the homeless, who are among the most vulnerable members of society.

"I think it starts with (the attackers') upbringing," she said. "If the parents show no regard for those in need, or they don't teach them respect, then they're not going to know that. They have to learn it from somebody."

But a society that dehumanizes the homeless shares culpability, she added.

"You have your group of people who want to help the homeless, and then you have others who believe they'll be doing society a favor by 'cleaning up the streets'--that is, by getting rid of the homeless," Robledo said.

To Magnotto, the solution is ending homelessness: "That's what we're trying to do, and it's a doable thing. It can happen."

Perhaps. In the meantime, there are many people who want justice for Sunshine, a woman who seemed to have friends everywhere.

"A lot of officers knew her and couldn't believe this happened, because she never bothered anybody," said TPD's Lt. Coleman. A mail carrier recently asked him about Sunshine and described her as "the nicest person."

Coleman said they're working on a couple of promising leads.

"Obviously, this is something that's of the utmost importance for us to solve," he said. "It won't bring her back, but at least we can catch the person."

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