Violent Attacks Target San Diego’s Homeless

     SAN DIEGO (CN) — San Diego’s homeless population and advocates were on edge Thursday as authorities continue to search for a suspect accused of setting homeless men on fire in attacks that have left two dead and two with critical injuries.
     Beginning on July 3, a man identified as a suspect by the San Diego Police Department has been setting homeless men sleeping alone on fire, with some of the victims also suffering stab wounds and trauma to their upper bodies. The attacks happened in and around downtown neighborhoods and as far away as Ocean Beach.
     One of the attack survivors has life-threatening injuries while the other is expected to survive, according to SDPD Capt. David Nisleit.
     SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman told reporters at a Wednesday afternoon news conference that “these evil acts of violence” were the worst she’s seen in 34 years in law enforcement.
     Authorities said they believe the same person is responsible for all the attacks.
     The first victim, 53-year-old Angelo De Nardo, was found on fire shortly after 8 a.m. on July 3 near the train tracks in the Clairemont neighborhood. An autopsy determined he had been killed before being set on fire, according to police Lt. Manny Del Toro.
     Manuel Mason, 61, the second victim, was found bleeding from stab wounds just before 5 a.m. Monday morning near the Valley View Casino Center in Point Loma. He was hospitalized in critical condition but is expected to survive, police said.
     A third man, Shawn Longley, 41, was found dead less than an hour later at the Robb Athletic Field in Ocean Beach, about three miles away from the second attack.
     The latest attack victim — whose name has not yet been released — was set on fire early Wednesday morning while asleep downtown near the federal courthouse. The 23-year-old man was hospitalized with critical injuries after bystanders pulled a burning towel off the man, according to Nisleit.
     The targeted attacks against San Diego’s homeless come at a time when tensions between homeless residents, the city and other San Diegans are already high due to the sharp increase in homeless residents living on downtown streets. One report from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless found the number of homeless people downtown has gone up 52 percent in the last two years, as the total number of homeless residents region-wide has gone down slightly.
     While the suspect in the murders has not yet been caught and a motive for the attacks is not known, some homeless advocates believe the city’s response to addressing homelessness through “anti-homeless tactics” that “criminalize” those living on the streets adds to an already hostile environment for San Diego’s most vulnerable population. Courthouse News talked to three well-known advocates about what these attacks mean in light of the current homelessness crisis in San Diego.
     
     Addressing a Humanitarian Crisis
     Michael McConnell, a full-time homeless advocate who sits on multiple local and national committees on homelessness said he “loves working on this issue because it has a beautiful rippling effect” of helping improve communities in basically every way, from public safety to tourism. Since the attacks began Sunday, McConnell’s taken to the streets to let homeless people know about the attacks and encourage them to sleep in groups and stay out of secluded areas.
     “This doesn’t matter who it was against. There’s somebody amongst us perpetrating these horrific crimes and we need to get this person out of our community,” McConnell said.
     “You already watch out for your neighbor, so respond to the needs of your homeless neighbors who are no less members of the community. We need to treat it as a crime against the community.”
     While McConnell pointed out there is no known motive for the attacks on homeless residents, the city’s “anti-homeless” tactics through encampment clean-ups and installing a jagged rock barrier along an underpass to keep homeless people away from Petco Park ahead of next week’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game “could create a culture” in which the attacks happen.
     He said the city’s response to increased homelessness has led to animosity and a “very negative perception” of people who are homeless.
     “It’s one of the most difficult hurdles in solving homelessness,” McConnell said. “The criminalization of the homeless and anti-homeless tactics lead to the perception homeless people are criminals, rather than neighbors.
     “This is not a criminal issue — it’s a social issue that requires a crisis response, not a law enforcement response. If we humanize homeless people, if we see them as our neighbors, we will be much more likely to assist them. When you see them as criminals, you don’t want to help them,” McConnell said.
     Bob McElroy, president and CEO of the Alpha Project, a homeless services organization in San Diego that serves 4,000 people a day, said at least half of the more than 1,000 homeless people his teams have contacted in the past few days did not know about the attacks. His small teams of formerly homeless outreach workers trek to river beds, freeway underpasses and other remote, sometimes dangerous areas, where many homeless people live.
     He said this week’s attacks are the most dangerous and violent he’s seen, but called ongoing harassment of homeless residents a “dirty little secret.”
     “We’re sitting on a powder keg downtown, a gauntlet of people are angry. People are frustrated,” McElroy said. “There are two different worlds coming together, the businesses and people who live and work downtown and homeless people. People’s lives are being impacted by negative aspects of homelessness. It’s been building for years.”
     McElroy wants the city to build a “central intake facility” downtown for people to get connected with services and temporary housing while waiting for permanent housing. But McElroy takes a “tough-love” approach, saying there needs to be consequences for those who don’t take advantage of services available to them if the city gets an intake facility downtown.
     “They need to get help, get a ticket or get a bus ticket out of town,” McElroy said.
     Former state Assemblywoman and native San Diegan Lori Saldana takes things a step further in her push for legalizing encampments. Saldana said encampments serve as safer communities where homeless people can be relatively undisturbed.
     She pointed out there are many reasons people do not go to shelters, including not wanting to be separated from partners or not wanting to leave behind pets or belongings.
     The “sweeps” of homeless camps may have led to a situation where homeless people who previously had safety nets through the groups they lived with are now more vulnerable to violent crimes if they sleep alone or in smaller groups, she said.
     “I’m concerned sweeps are the absolute wrong approach. They disrupt people whose lives are already disrupted,” Saldana said. “People who have community with other homeless people are able to keep an eye on one another. But [the city] has pushed some people away from groups of safety. We need to reconsider if that is such a horrible model.”
     She also called the attacks against homeless San Diegans “hate crimes.”
     “The fact these people have this characteristic in common, I think that’s enough for the district attorney and law enforcement to find it as constituting a hate crime,” Saldana said.
     “I don’t understand how a city in this country cannot handle its humanitarian crisis.”

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