The Pain of Others

Being homeless already means living in brutal poverty. Increasingly, it also means brutal violence.

Last September, James Markham Beasley was sleeping on a cement bench in downtown Reno, Nevada. A transient, 55-year-old homeless man, Beasley was an introvert who mostly kept to himself. But on this September night, his sleepy solitude was violently broken by a series of unprovoked kicks to his upper torso and head. The next morning, Beasley was found lying unconscious behind a building, not far from where he had been peacefully sleeping just a few hours earlier.

His assailants, Christopher Maciolek and Finely Fultz, were two unemployed teens, ages 18 and 19. Both boys lived with their mothers and are accused of attacking two other homeless individuals that same morning. The surviving victims of the attack say that Maciolek and Fultz were shouting that they were "Aryan soldiers," as they menaced the group from their sleep. A few weeks prior to Beasley's death, a similar incident occurred just a few miles east in Sparks, Nevada. Two middle-aged homeless men reported that a group of four to six teenagers assaulted them with tree branches, baseball bats and pepper spray. Once again, this attack occurred without provocation.

Already fighting against the brutality of poverty, homeless people across the United States are facing a dramatic increase in random, violent attacks involving teen males. According to The National Coalition for the Homeless, the majority of attacks are carried out by "thrill seekers," most often white middle-class males in their teens. In 2006, 84 percent of attacks by non-homeless people against the homeless were by assailants under the age 25. Sixty-two percent of the assailants were between 13 and 19 years old.

Many crimes involve groups of up to six teen males attacking individual or small groups of homeless males in their mid-to-late fifties. Often times the weapons of choice are sticks, logs or baseball bats. In the state of Florida, one recent attack that resulted in the death of a homeless man was carried out by five teens who admitted to doing it for fun. Another non-lethal attack on two homeless men involved two ten-year-old boys, with one of them smashing a cinderblock on the homeless man's eye.

While the public struggles to find what would make these young men turn to senseless acts of violence, the trail of cruelty can be traced back to city ordinances and bylaws that imply homelessness is a crime. By criminalizing homelessness, local governments can send the message that homeless people are of no value to the community, and therefore have no rights to protection under the law. Many of the "thrill seeking" attackers operate under the faulty assumption that these attacks will go unpunished. In fact, many of these crimes do, since only a small fraction of them are actually reported to authorities.

Mike Mallory, who works at a men's drop-in-center near downtown Reno, says at least seven of his clients were beaten the same month that Beasley was killed, but they have kept quiet. "They figure no one cares for them because they're homeless and don't contribute to society," he says.

It's easy to understand how misguided youth might get this impression it's all right to assault the homeless when city councils nationwide imply that homeless people aren't even worth feeding. In Florida, where attacks against the homeless have become almost epidemic, it is illegal to feed the homeless if they are gathered in groups larger than 25. In Las Vegas, an order was passed in July 2005 that made it illegal to give food to the homeless in public parks. Violating the ordinance can be punished with a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail. Measures of this nature have also been passed in Wilmington, North Carolina and Dallas, Texas.

The lack of affordable housing also reinforces the message that poverty should be met with punishment. During the summer of 2005, 32 homeless people died on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona. All deaths were from heat-related causes, and many died in the shade of air-conditioned buildings. Every winter in Reno, many homeless people die in below-freezing temperatures, while local casinos and businesses argue over the location for a new homeless shelter because they feel it would reduce the value of their property. A location for the shelter was finally agreed upon, but it remains an empty lot with a sign that reads in tragic irony: "Date of Completion: January 2007."

The meager shelters and few possessions the homeless do have are often torn down or burned by police officers during routine sweeps. Police particularly target homeless people prior to tourist events, such as Hot August Nights in Reno. Police patrol the streets as part of a program called, "Chronic Offender Mapping." Often a homeless person is targeted for having a previous misdemeanor charge or an open container of alcohol. He or she is then given two choices: receive a suspended sentence and stay out of downtown, or go to jail. Once downtown is declared safe of these "dangerous criminals" and their open containers, the streets are closed off to traffic so that hundreds of tourists can walk the streets carrying open containers in plain view of police. This double standard communicates the unfortunate message that the law is only on the side of those who can afford it.

Considering the degradation with which homeless people are treated, it's no surprise that these ideas have begun to weave their way into pop culture as well. 'Bum Fights' is a series of amateur style DVDs that are available for sale online and at one time were available for sale at corporate chains such as Borders and Best Buy. Various titles in the Bum Fights series include Bum Hunter and Bag Lady Beatings. In these DVDs, homeless people are coerced with drugs, alcohol and food into performing dangerous stunts or degrading acts.

Bum Fights III is notoriously horrific and includes a scene of a homeless man going through withdrawal from crack addiction being chained to a light post. He is then taunted with drugs and money and later rewarded with drugs for bungee jumping off a tower into a pool. Another scene shows a prostitute and a homeless man spanking a bound homeless man repeatedly with sex whips. He is gagged and in pain throughout.

Ty Beeson and Ray Laticia, the two men who released the videos, were initially faced with seven felony and four misdemeanor charges for acts of violence committed in the videos. Instead, the final ruling reflected the prevailing theme that violence against the homeless should go unpunished. Beeson and Laticia were sentenced to a mere 250 hours of community service.

While the media often tells us that homelessness is a product of laziness and addiction, the main causes actually stem from a decrease in wages, erosion of the value of minimum wage, and a lack of affordable healthcare and housing. According to the Center for Housing Policy, the number of working-class family renters in the US that pay more than half their income into housing has risen from 1 million to 2.1 million in ten years. Throughout the country, there are a projected 9 million low-income renters, but only 6.2 million units of housing that they could actually afford. This scenario has created a crisis where 3.5 million people in the US (1.35 million of them children) will experience homelessness this year, and on any given night, approximately 750,000 men, women and children are considered homeless. Millions more are just a paycheck away from joining them.

James Beasley was honored in a memorial service on December 21, 2007. He was commemorated along with all the other homeless who died in Reno that year.

It was a modest turn out, no more than 60 people, at least 15 of whom were press. Beasley's name was read, and a candle was lit in his memory. The event was sponsored in part by the Reno Police Department, but only one officer was in attendance. Officer Patrick O'Bryan gave an impassioned speech about the symptoms of homelessness. He pointed out that Nevada has the largest per capita population of homeless people.

"Should there be a sign at the border that reads: Warning, no human services for 1,000 miles?" he asked.

When asked about the murder of Beasley and what might have been his killers' motivation, O'Bryan said, "I wish I knew ... What we say in our media, what we say in our communities, communicates to certain people that there are those that deserve this treatment. There seems to be a human need to exclude that which is not perfect. We learn it as children and continue it in our adult lives."