Is There An Epidemic of Teens Terrorizing the Homeless?

Is there an “epidemic” of teens terrorizing the homeless?

September 30, 2008

CBS News’ video, “Epidemic: Teens Beating Homeless,” posted September 21, 2008, begins: “Throughout the United States, more and more teenagers are viciously assualting homeless people for no apparent reason. Kelly Cobiella reports on this alarming and consistently growing trend.” The CBS video stated that of the 160 unprovoked attacks on the homeless nationwide in 2006, 64% were by teens.

The notion that hordes of teens are attacking homeless people is a recurring herd-media sensation (i.e, “Teen ‘sport killings’ of homeless on the rise,” CNN, February 20, 2007; “Homeless man says teens laughed as they beat him up,” MSNBC.com, September 11, 2008; “Rampaging Fla. youths beat homeless men, killing one,” Fox News, January 13, 2006; etc.). These inflammatory stories are often encouraged by homeless organizations (see “A vile teen fad: beating the homeless,” co-authored by acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless Michael Stoops, which begins: “Across the nation, America’s homeless are under attack—literally. They are hunted down during youthful rites of passage by roving packs of males armed with prejudice and tools of torture,” Christian Science Monitor, October 18, 2006).

What, actually, do these statistical reports show? The National Coalition on the Homeless report in question refersonly to a very small number of attacks on homeless people that are by housed people and are classified as hate crimes. The report finds 142 such attacks nationwide in 2006, with 65 of the accused or convicted perpetrators identified as under age 20. The numbers are small and fluctuate and may very well represent simply more reporting of such offenses.

First, it is true that attacks on homeless people are a serious issue, they are undercounted, and the meager evidence we have about the small number classified as hate crimes in which the perpetrator is arrested, a large majority are under age 25.

Second, there is no evidence of an “epidemic” of teenage attacks on the homeless, let alone a rising one. The National Crime Victimization Survey estimated 5.1 million assaults nationwide in 2006 (1.3 million aggravated assaults) against all Americans. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates 744,000 people are homeless on any given day. If the homeless suffer assaults at the national average rate (20.7 per 1,000 per year), there were at least 15,000 assaults on homeless people in 2006—and, unfortunately, most evidence from cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle findsviolence and homicide against the homeless occurs at levels much higher than the national average. Further, city surveys find one-fourth of homeless people (including half to over 60% of homeless women) were victims of domestic violence. The 60 to 90 cases shown to involve teens every year account for considerably fewer than 1% of cases of violence against the homeless. While I am not suggesting that unprovoked violence is excusable in any circumstance, these numbers are far too small to suggest an “epidemic” of violence by teens against the homeless.

To visualize this fact, imagine the opposite case. A nationwide list certainly could be compiled of many cases of violence against children and teens by homeless people (i.e., “Transient held in teen stabbing,” Orlando Sentinel/KTLA News, September 15, 2008; “St. Pete Police: Transient charged with raping teen,” Tampa Tribune, August 28, 2008; “Transient arrested after teen stabbing,” KABC-TV, August 19, 2008; “Transient arrested in murder attempt,” Redding.com, March 28, 2008; “Man arrested in Poway on suspicion of sexually assaulting teen,” North County Times, July 17, 2007; “Criminal vagrant attacks teen in Hemming park, FL,” YouTube, November 26, 2006; “Transient arrested in teen sex assault,” TheDenverChannel.com, c2002). But it would be irresponsible to suggest that these occasional cases demonstrate that the homeless—a group already under prejudicial attack in many cities—are perpetrating an epidemic of violence against young people. Why, then, is it acceptable to vilify teenagers?

Not only are the news media and homeless organizations irresponsible to create the image of a rising epidemic from small and fluctuating numbers, the cause they cite—video games—is nowhere shown to have been a factor. Rather, the best of a small body of research indicates that teens who commit hate crimes tend to come from violent homes, a perspective the media seem strangely unwilling to discuss. Some 80,000 violent and sexual abuse cases against 12-17 year-olds by their parents or caretakers were substantiated in 2006, the national Child Maltreatment report reports.The media’s indifference to violence by adults against teens contrasts with their eagerness to misrepresent young people as violent and becoming worse.

Being victimized does not justify victimizing others. Likewise, the fact that homeless people are often misrepresented as perpetrators of danger and violence, including to children, does not justify homeless organizations’ scare campaigns against teenagers. Both the news media and homeless organizations owe teens a much larger, fairer perspective than was embodied in the unfortunately typical CBS, CNN, and other news report.

Note: In response to this post, Anthony Pirtle of the National Coalition for the Homeless made a patently ridiculous claim: “It is not illogical to assume that if the majority of reported attacks were committed by youths, then the majority of unreported attacks are most likely committed by the same demographic. In fact that is quite logical, statistically speaking,” he said. That is, based on the age breakdown for a tiny, select set of 160 cases of violence in 2006, Pirtle declares that it’s logical to assume that housed youth must also commit the large majority of ALL of the TENS OF THOUSANDS of cases of violence against the homeless for which no information on assailants is available!

This notion is so irrational no responsible researcher would endorse it. In fact, the scant research shows the vast majority of homicides and other violence against homeless persons are committed by intimate partners, drug dealers, and other homeless individuals and others in the street environment, not “thrill-seeking teens”--something the NCH damn well knows. The most comprehensive studies of 974 Los Angeles homeless women in 2001 found 34% had experienced a major violent incident in the previous year, and a second study of 737 homeless in four cities in 2002 similarly found very high rates of violence against homeless individuals.None of the interviews or tables mentioned housed teenagers as the perpetrators; homeless men were cited repeatedly as the chief source of violence. Further, this study found homeless people stating they had committed a great deal of violence themselves: for example, more than one-fourth of homeless men had committed violent assaults, one-third domestic violence, and one-sixth armed robbery.

Incredibly, Pirtle expressed a complete lack of concern about violence by the homeless–including documented murders, rapes, kidnappings, and assaults–against youth and denied that this was an important matter. This is symptomatic of the callousness of American culture, even among groups that suffer negative stereotypes themselves, toward its young people.

One cannot talk with homeless people or read their accounts of their lives without feeling great sympathy for the immense toll violence and abuse in their childhoods and adult lives have caused in leading to their current distress–and the harsh stereotypes the homeless suffer in the media and by many lobbies. That is why the National Coalition for the Homeless’s callousness, viciousness toward youth, and eagerness to exploit unwarranted fear of young people–many of whom suffer high rates of poverty, abuse, and negative stereotyping–comes as such a dismaying shock.