Rates of violence against the homeless are worse than you think

But there are several actions your community can take to minimize the risk and help get homeless citizens the protection they need


A homeless woman huddles next to a building in Portugal. Women are particularly susceptible to incidences of sexual assault while living on the streets. Image: Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr

For the 553,742 men, women and children who are homeless on any given night, and the roughly 500,000 individuals and families who reside in supportive housing through HUD’s homeless programs, life is rough.

Not only is the life expectancy for someone who is homeless 20-30 years younger than the general population — due to harsh living conditions and inability to access necessities like food, water and healthcare — but the homeless population also faces another threat: Humanity.

The National Homeless Coalition underscores precisely how scary it is to be homeless in their most recent data-driven report, Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Bias-Motivated Violence against People Experiencing Homelessness which details stats from 2016-2017 (which can be reviewed in full below).

Data from the survey shows:

  • In 2017 there were 29 anti-homeless attacks, and 11 of the victims lost their lives.
  • In 2016 there were 83 anti-homeless attacks, and 37 of the victims lost their lives.

The study only accounts for a fraction of crimes and deaths against the homeless. The same study estimates the true number of deaths on the street is closer to 13,000 annually.

Crimes against the homeless

The stories of crimes against the homeless are abundant, and each individually horrific. Often, the general population is unknowing of the violence, or in some cases may even turn a blind eye.

The most common types of violence against the homeless include:


Research from the United Kingdom shows that the homeless experience harassment nearly every day they live on the streets:

  • More than one in three have been deliberately hit, kicked or experienced some other form of violence while homeless
  • 34% have had things thrown at them
  • 9% have been urinated on while homeless
  • 48% have been intimidated or threatened with violence while homeless
  • 59% have been verbally abused or harassed

Harassment is just the tip of the iceberg; abuse can be increasingly physical with damaging results.


In the worst cases, assaults against the homeless lead to casualties. In one particularly dire example, serial victimizer, John D. Guerrero, from San Diego, California, was charged after killing or wounding a dozen homeless people. Guerrero’s acts against the homeless included driving railroad spikes into his victims and setting two of them on fire during his six-month reign of terror that claimed the life of three men and one woman.

City-specific statistics show the number of crimes against the homeless that lead to death may be on the rise, too. Specifically, in Los Angeles, the number of homeless people that were murdered rose from 40 to 42 from 2018 to 2019.

Assault with deadly weapons

Not every attack on the homeless leads to death, but the violence is still gruesome.

For example, in 2018 a 35-year-old man and 42-year-old woman were doused in battery acid as they slept in Mission Hills Park, California. Both victims were taken to a hospital to treat their chemical burns.

Over the last 18 years, 1,769 reported acts of violence have been committed against homeless individuals, though the actual number is likely much higher.

Sexual assault

While sexual assault statistics affect the entire homeless populations, data shows that women and youth are particularly susceptible to sexual assault while living on the streets.

Research by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center shows:

  • While 1-3% of the general youth population report sexual assault, 21-42% of youth homeless have reported sexual assault
  • 1 in 3 teens are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of living on the street
  • 1 in 3 homeless youth engage in survival sex

The experience of violence in the lives of homeless women: A research report, showed that 78.3% of homeless women in the study have been subjected to rape, physical assault, and/or stalking. Of victimized respondents:

  • 55.9% had been raped
  • 72.2% had been physically assaulted
  • 25.4% had been subjected to stalking

Those who experience sexual assault while homeless also lack access to legal, medical and mental health services, which can worsen the post traumatic effects of an assault.

Law enforcement brutality

In 2019, The California Policy Lab at UCLA used more than 60,000 VI-SPDAT records from across the country to show how often unsheltered homeless populations are in contact with law enforcement. The results showed that, on average, a homeless person has more than 20 contacts with police in a six-month period, though not all of them are positive.

In 2016, San Antonio Officer Matthew Luckhurst found dog poop, bread and a container on the ground, put it in together, and served it to a homeless man as a joke. Though Luckhurst was initially fired, he won an appeal in 2019 for reinstatement and is currently fighting to overturn a second indefinite suspension.

Negative encounters with law enforcement make homeless victims reluctant to report the crimes against them, skewing the data we have available.

Multimedia exploitation

The exploitation of the homeless population for a profit first became highlighted in the media after the DVD video series called Bumfights became viral in 2002. In the videos, homeless victims were rewarded with money, alcohol or other incentives if they fought each other, or conducted other foul acts like drinking urine or banging their head through glass windows.

The filmmakers behind Bumfights were sued by activists and the homeless men featured in the video. As part of a settlement, the filmmakers agreed not to produce any more Bumfights videos or distribute videos already made. They also paid the three homeless men a settlement.

Giving a face to homelessness

For many low-income Americans, a single illness, accident or missed paycheck can force someone into homelessness, especially if they don’t have a strong support network.

Disability, injury and illness

According to a research paper published by Harvard, about a tenth of homeless people are physically disabled. Disability can cause lost jobs, depletion of savings and eventual eviction, which can lead to homelessness.

Those who collect a disability check aren’t necessarily protected from homelessness either. The national average price for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,216 as of June 2019. As of January 1, 2019, the Federal benefit rate is $771 for an individual and $1,157 for a couple. That means, the national average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is just shy of double the income of a person who relies only on SSI income.

Relationship strains, including with partners and family

Often, homelessness comes along with extreme social estrangement. Without a support network, and with limited resources for another housing or support option, homelessness occurs.

A particularly susceptible group to social estrangement are battered women who also live in poverty. According to a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 50% of the cities identify domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness.

Mental illness

A third of the entire homeless population is mentally ill, and mental illness is the third-largest reason for homelessness in the United States.

Some experts believe that homelessness became a national issue in the 1960s and 1970s as an unintended consequence of closing state mental hospitals. After patients were released from mental hospitals, there usually wasn’t replacement treatment or housing for people to consider.

In San Francisco, California, home to 8,011 homeless individuals, the San Francisco Homeless Count estimates that 55% have emotional or psychiatric conditions.

Military service

More than 10% of the adult homeless population has served in the military. And, according to HUD, as of January 2019, 37,085 veterans experienced homelessness on any given night.

A study published by The US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health shows the top three reasons why veterans believe their service increased their risk of becoming homeless:

  1. Substance abuse problems that began in the military
  2. Inadequate preparation for civilian employment
  3. Loss of a structured lifestyle


The relationship between addiction and homelessness is equal parts complex and controversial.

As with other causes of homelessness, the network someone has will greatly determine whether they end up on the street or not. As such, many people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs never become homeless. It’s often those who are poor and addicted that have an increased risk of homelessness.

It’s also possible for addiction to become the byproduct of homelessness, which perpetuates the situation, as opposed to the root cause.

what your community can do

To minimize the risk of violence against the homeless, there are several actions your community can take. The first is to provide a protected status for people experiencing homelessness.

Some states, like Maryland, Florida and Alaska, have added protections to their homeless communities, like considering acts of violence against them a hate crime. The change in legal language maximizes sentencing and punishment if someone is caught victimizing the homeless.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) does not currently recognize a protected status for people experiencing homelessness.

Municipal codes against the homeless

Your community can also update the municipal codes that punish the homeless for life-sustaining behavior, like sleeping, making money, or using the restroom, considered a form of discrimination in and of itself.

According to a study conducted by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, of the 187 cities they’ve included in the study:

  • 51% have at least one law restricting sleeping in a public place
  • 39% of cities prohibit living in vehicles
  • 33% of cities prohibit camping in public
  • 50% prohibit camping in particular places
  • 27% of cities prohibit panhandling city-wide
  • 61% prohibit panhandling in certain public places

Additionally, 83% of cities prohibit public urination and defecation. This regulation makes sense, as it is a legitimate public health and sanitation concern. However, many cities do not often provide free public restrooms that are easily accessible. For example, Seattle, which has the third-largest homeless population in the U.S, only had one functional 24-hour restroom, downtown, as of 2015.

Review “Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Bias-Motivated Violence Against People Experiencing Homelessness in 2016-2017":

Hate Crimes 2016 17 Final f... by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Megan Wells is a data journalist and digital content editor based in San Francisco, California.