Assault on Houseless Person in San Francisco is Typical of the Dehumanization of People Experiencing Homelessness

Gallery owner hosing down homeless woman

Police have charged a San Francisco art gallery owner with misdemeanor battery after a video of him spraying a homeless person with a hose went viral.

A neighboring business posted a TikTok video of Collier Gwin, owner of the Foster Gwin Art Gallery, turning a hose on a person known only as Q as they sat on the sidewalk on Jan. 9th. Gwin said he acted out of frustration after the individual—who identifies as male despite presenting as a woman—refused to move his belongings down the street. Gwin defended his actions, saying he’s tried reaching out to the city for help, but the individual keeps returning to the spot outside his gallery.

“We called the police,” he said. “There must be at least 25 calls to the police. It’s two days in a homeless shelter, it’s two days in jail, and then they drop them right back on the street.”

Edson Garcia, who recorded the video and posted it online, said that while he has seen the individual on the street many times, he’s never found the person belligerent. He said he was appalled when he saw what Gwin was doing.

 

“It was cold and raining,” he said. “She was screaming, saying, ‘Okay, I’ll move, I’ll move!’ It’s not fair to see people doing stuff like that.”

Garcia wasn’t the only one. The video quickly went viral, with most viewers condemning Gwin’s actions. People were particularly horrified by how nonchalant he was about it, leaning casually against the wall with an indifferent expression on his face as if he were watering his plants.

“This is inexcusable,” said comedian and actor Marsha Warfield in a tweet sharing the video. “The casual look on his face reminds me of the images I’ve seen of people at lynchings.”

‘Othering’ of People Experiencing Homelessness Leads to Dehumanization

The episode is emblematic of the dehumanization of people experiencing homelessness experience daily.

What is dehumanization? Psychologists have described it as a process by which individuals are deprived of the characteristics that make them human. When people or groups are dehumanized, they’re not perceived as having human emotions or experiences. According to Paul Thagard, who wrote about the phenomenon for Psychology Today, it’s commonly used to justify the mistreatment of disenfranchised groups.

“Europeans and Arabs viewed Africans as subhuman in order to justify enslaving them,” Thagard wrote. “The Nazis depicted Jews as rats and vermin in order to encourage their extermination. In Rwanda, the Hutus branded the Tutsis as cockroaches in order to mark them as deserving elimination.”

We see echoes of those same propaganda campaigns in American media when discussing homelessness, according to columnist Adam Johnson

News coverage portrays people experiencing homelessness as invaders encroaching on people’s property, that the homeowners are the victims of a crime instead of those left uncared for by society. The language surrounding dismantling homeless encampments—”cleanups,” “sweeps,” etc.—implies filth and dirt, again calling up those images of invading vermin that need to be eliminated.

Finally, people in poverty are often accused of scamming the system. They’re welfare queens or freeloaders undeserving of help. All of these depictions combine to create an idea of “the homeless” as subhuman and thus unworthy of sympathy.

Criminalization Further Victimizes Homeless People, Contributes to Increased Dehumanization

The existing media narrative focuses on people experiencing homelessness who commit crimes, often ignoring the fact that they are more likely to be victims of violent crime than their housed counterparts—and that housing status is often a reason they’re targeted.

While it’s difficult to determine how many people experiencing homelessness are victimized every year—violent crime among the homeless is severely underreported—the National Coalition for the Homeless has attempted to do so, releasing a report in 2020 examining 20 years of police reports relating to crimes targeting people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

Between 1999 and 2019, there were 1,852 incidents of violence, 515 of which were fatal. The nonprofit hasn’t looked at numbers since 2020, but advocates say they’ve seen an increase in violent crime since the pandemic.

“We do believe there is an increase based on news reports and reports from advocates,” said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “That creates this culture of people not being important. Or people being less-than. It gives people permission to commit violence.”

Bobby Watts, Chief Executive Officer of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said people experiencing homelessness have also been targets of the frustration and anger that has built in the population during the pandemic.

“People experiencing homelessness are easy targets for those who want to express rage or dissatisfaction with the way their own lives are going,” Watts said.

These problems are exacerbated by laws that criminalize homelessness.

“Since the 1980s, the homeless community—and poor people in general—have been ostracized and dehumanized,” the report’s authors noted. “According to the National Homelessness Law Center, at least 187 cities have enacted laws to criminalize life-sustaining acts like camping, sleeping, and panhandling. Criminalizing homelessness villainizes and pushes people experiencing homelessness into hiding. The forced isolation caused by criminalization makes people experiencing homeless targets for those intent on causing harm to them.”

Meanwhile, no federal legislation declares crimes against homeless people as hate crimes. Only a handful of states include housing status as a protected class, so those who face prosecution rarely get more than a slap on the wrist.

For his part, if convicted in the attack on Q, gallery owner Collier Gwin could face up to six months in jail or a $2,000 fine. He only expressed remorse for the crime after the backlash, insisting to San Francisco’s KPIX that he’d been an “angel” to the woman previously.

“I feel awful, not just because I want to get out of trouble or something like that, but because I’d put a tremendous amount of effort into helping this woman on the street.”

TikTok star R. Michael McWhorter wasn’t buying it.

“You didn’t want to help her,” he said in a video. “You wanted her hauled away like trash.”


Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall is a freelance journalist from Upstate New York. She is especially passionate about social justice, voting rights and women’s issues.

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