Why is Violence Against Homeless People on the Rise?

man holds homeless and hungry sign

We see it all the time or even feel the need to do it ourselves: cross the street to avoid walking past a homeless person, or lock our car door when parked next to someone panhandling. How ironic is it that so many fear random violence from homeless people, when it’s they who have every right to be afraid of us?

And yet, that’s exactly the case. Violence against homeless people is on the rise, and a number of cases in the U.S. and internationally prove it.

In July and August, four homeless people in Chicago were targets of apparently random stabbings. All of them were asleep while they were stabbed in the neck. One died from his injuries. This is an example of homeless people being deliberately targeted simply because they were homeless, and it’s not the only one. Also in July in Chicago, three homeless encampments were set on fire.

Acts of violence commonly perpetrated against homeless people include murder, attacks with deadly weapons, harassment, and sexual assault.

A report from the U.K. showed that:

  • More than one in three homeless people have been purposely hit, kicked, or otherwise attacked
  • 34% have had things thrown at them
  • 59% have been harassed or verbally abused
  • 48% have been intimidated or threatened with violence

Sexual violence is also incredibly common among homeless people, especially youth. Research from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center shows:

  • One in three teens are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home and living on the street
  • Between 21% and 42% of homeless youth have reported sexual assault

Finally, a research report on homeless women highlighted the following statistics:

  • 55.9% of homeless women have been raped
  • 72.2% have been physically attacked

Violence against homeless people is likely to be greatly under-reported. This is because homeless people, unsurprisingly, are unlikely to report attacks to the police. A UCLA study conducted in 2019 showed homeless people have an average of 20 contacts with law enforcement every six months.

Not all of these contacts are positive. Due to the criminalization of homelessness, many homeless people view police officers as the enemy—people to avoid for their own protection, who are not there to protect them.

Violence Against Homeless People is a Hate Crime

When we think of hate crimes, we tend to think about race, religion, national origin, sexuality, and gender identity. However, Merriam-Webster defines a hate crime as “any of various crimes when motivated by hostility to the victim as a member of a group.” Crimes against homeless people are motivated by hatred of the group to whom they belong—the unhoused.

Unfortunately, the federal government does not currently recognize violence toward homeless people as hate crimes. Being homeless is not a protected status the way race, religion, etc. is. Two bills—the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act and the Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Enforcement Act—were introduced over 10 years ago, but got no further. This means the government does not track or prosecute violence against the unhoused as hate crimes.

Why Is that Important?

Violence against people without homes is pervasive in our society, yet little attention is paid to it. Although we do everything we can to educate and advocate for people without homes, there are still widespread beliefs that homeless people are lazy, choose to be homeless, or any number of other myths. Therefore, when hearing about violence inflicted on them, the reaction tends to be, Well, they deserved it.

Part of the reason homeless people are viewed as deserving of their treatment is because of criminalization. The criminalization of homelessness is very real, and very dangerous. Evidence shows that the more homelessness is criminalized, the more attacks against homeless people there are. A 2014 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty showed that the two states with the most criminalization of daily habits of homeless people—Florida and California—were also the two highest in rates of violence against homeless people.

Anti-homeless sentiments are on the rise for other reasons, too.

Recent relocation of homeless people to hotels due to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some, who are used to living in a privileged and gentrified neighborhood, to feel suspicious. Now that these protections are ending, these neighborhoods cannot put their formerly homeless neighbors back on the street soon enough.

Remarks from leaders are also stoking the flames of anti-homeless, anti-poor sentiment. These remarks reflect a strong support of NIMBYism and draw a clear line in the sand between “us” and “them.”

While most of us are not actually committing violence or making threats, we are more likely to turn a blind eye to acts of intolerance and hatred. Tim Gordon, leader for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said of the above-described encampment arson: “Homeless people are being shot. Our tents are being burned down and no one seems to care. It is not a crime to be homeless, but I feel like that is how people look at us.”

What Can We Do to Advocate?

As numb as our society is becoming to the plight of homeless people, there is still reason to hope. Anti-homeless sentiment, more often than not, is borne out of ignorance. These stories about violence against homeless people sleeping in parks don’t make national news, but that doesn’t mean people won’t be horrified to hear about it.

Do your part by becoming aware of what’s happening and sharing these stories with others. The best way to fight ignorance is education and awareness. Invisible People is a great resource for that. The fight to end stigma around homelessness may feel never-ending, but the greater our reach, the more empathy and compassion we can instill.

Read our articles, share our stories and videos, contact your legislators. And never stop getting the word out about what it truly looks and feels like to be homeless.

Victoria VanTol

Victoria VanTol


Victoria VanTol holds a master's degree in social work. She is a therapist and freelance writer specializing in topics related to social justice and mental health.

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