The first victim was found lying below the palm trees and the blinking glass towers of Miami’s downtown skyline. It was December 21st. At around 8 p.m. a police officer was flagged down by a passerby about a man lying unconscious on the sidewalk. He’d been shot in the head.
“Officers quickly connected the two incidents not only because of the short span of time between the two shootings but because both incidents involved victims that were homeless,” Miami Police interim chief Manuel Morales said at a news conference two days later.
Investigators chased leads, weaving developments into a fact pattern. Ballistics matched the two shootings. Video surveillance near the second incident caught gunfire erupting from a dark Dodge Charger. The car’s tag showed it was registered to 25-year-old Willy Suarez Maceo. When the suspect was taken into custody, he was found with a 9mm Glock handgun. The firearm matched shell casing involved in the shootings.
Maceo has since been charged with felony murder, and Morales said police believe he may also be responsible for the earlier fatal shooting in October of another man living on the streets. Maceo, a real estate agent who posed with Porsches and preached the benefits of cryptocurrency on social media, has since been characterized by authorities as a suspected serial killer who targeted people experiencing homelessness.
“We have a very dangerous person off of the streets now,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez announced following the arrest. Maceo’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment. His alleged crimes are an extreme example of targeted attacks on the homeless happening across the country.
According to experts and advocates, the last year has seen a spike in violence against the homeless. There was a beheading in Colorado. A sleeping man lit on fire in the stairwell of a New York City apartment complex. An attack by four juveniles on a sleeping woman in Washington state. Beyond these lurid headlines, however, are dozens of daily acts of violence occasioned by increasing collisions between the housed and unhoused populations in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, experts say.
“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. For the past four years, homelessness numbers have climbed in America, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a trend that is expected to continue in 2022.
The response in many communities to these increases has been “a criminalization of homelessness,” Whitehead said. “That creates this culture of people not being important. Or people being less-than. It gives people permission to commit violence.”
Crime perpetrated by unhoused people against others is certainly also happening. On Jan. 16, Martial Simon, 61, who police have said was unhoused, fatally pushed Michelle Alyssa Go, 40, in front of a New York City subway in Times Square.
But past studies have shown the homeless are more likely to be victims of violent crime than housed people. Tracking crimes against individuals experiencing homelessness has always presented a deeper challenge. Unlike sex or race, housing status is not often a factor logged by authorities when recording a crime victim’s details.
People experiencing homelessness are also often reluctant to engage with law enforcement even when they are the victims of a crime.
“They may have had bad experiences in the past with police,” said Bobby Watts, chief executive of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. “Many of them also have outstanding warrants. Not because of major crimes, but most of those citations would be for vagrancy or public urination, because they don’t have anywhere else to carry out these activities.”
But advocates are mounting a new effort to try to capture violence against the unhoused. In 2020, the National Coalition of the Homeless released a report looking at 20 years of police reports related to crime targeting people living on the street. The analysis found that between 1999 and 2019, there were 1,852 incidents of violence against homeless individuals. Of those attacks, 515 were fatal.
California, Florida and Texas made up the majority of those attacks over the two decades, with 390, 261, and 102, respectively. In the same time period, the District of Columbia saw 58 attacks against unhoused individuals.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the report noted 83 attacks nationwide, with 39 resulting in death. The report noted 97 percent of the lethal attacks were perpetuated by men, while 85 percent of the fatal victims were also men.
No significant statistics have been published since the start of the pandemic, but advocates say they also believe crimes against the unsheltered have increased because more people are living on the streets. “2020 was the first time we saw people experiencing unsheltered homelessness exceeding that of those in shelters,” Watts said.
The increased levels of unhoused individuals have also triggered a public backlash against homelessness. The National Coalition of the Homeless has tracked homeless encampment sweeps in 55 jurisdictions between January 2020 and July 2021. Advocates argue these public displacements pit the homeless against law enforcement, while also creating an atmosphere of official hostility toward this vulnerable population.
“What you will hear is that these sweeps are an effort to put people into housing,” said Whitehead. “But what we are hearing is that the opportunities for getting into housing are overrepresented. These sweeps also focuses people into more remote locations, where the opportunity for people to perpetuate violence against them is more readily available.”
Homelessness can also make people convenient targets for the free-floating anger stirred up by almost two years of social distress.
“The pandemic has increased crime across the board,” Watts said. “It also has led to rage, and people experiencing homelessness are easy targets for those who want to express rage or dissatisfaction with the way their own lives are going.”
But advocates want to move beyond merely collecting grisly lists of violent episodes. The National Coalition for the Homeless is teaming with other groups to present a broader study of the recent violence. Spearheaded by Brian Davis, its director of grass roots organizing, the effort aims to focus on patterns and risk factors within the incidents.
“Right now, we track news stories, and then we have a lawyer work to see if the crimes are in fact hate crimes against the homeless, or homeless on homeless crimes, or regular street crime. We have to narrow down the broader violence that happens on the street to see if it targeted violence,” Davis said. “One thing that we’re working on with some researchers is to figure out what factors are most likely to lead to a person facing violence, and how we can avoid those.”
The report, which Davis hopes will publish in late 2022, will also utilize the responses from small survey groups of people experiencing homelessness. The hypothesis going into the study will be that for every 60 days without housing, an individual is likely to experience at least one violent incident. The likelihood increases if the individual is female.
The effort is geared toward hammering out the statistical dangers of living on the street, Davis said. “There needs to be some urgency about finding safe spaces for people,” he said. “In my experience, we’ve let lots of people languish while waiting for housing to become available. We have to show that there are real world consequences, people are attacked, robbed and raped, because they are waiting for shelter.”