Corporate Press Scapegoats Vulnerable Homeless For Rise In Subway Crime

Media coverage of homeless
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A homeless man allegedly pushed 40-year-old Michelle Go in front of an oncoming train at a New York City subway station on January 15, killing her. The high-profile attack received worldwide coverage, with widespread reporting emphasizing crimes committed by people without homes in New York and around the country.

Discussing the murder on Fox’s America’s Newsroom (1/19/22), anchor Dana Perino said, “As we allow the homeless to be there year after year…as you look at some of their trajectories…not only are they a harm to themselves, but they will harm someone else.”

That same day, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade (1/19/22) reported crime waves nationwide, saying, “a lot of this has to do with [the] homeless.”

An Independent headline (1/19/22) asked, “Three Women Killed in Random Attacks by Homeless Men: What Does It Reveal About America’s Crime Wave?”

“Progressive policies are leaving violent criminals, often homeless, on streets to victimize others,” said an opinion piece in a local Washington state paper (Everett Herald, 1/31/22).

Coverage that conflates crime with homelessness scapegoats a marginalized population for a broader crisis. It also leaves out the rise in violent crimes against homeless people—like the recent serial shootings of five homeless men in New York City and Washington, DC. This rhetoric casts a population already vulnerable to violent crime as villains rather than victims.

This disproportionate media concern is the flipside of real-life disregard for homeless people’s lives. An annual report of homeless deaths compiled by New York City’s health and social services agencies found that 2021 was the deadliest year on record for homeless New Yorkers. Twenty-two unhoused New Yorkers were killed by another person in the 2021 fiscal year—an increase from 16 in 2020 and 10 in 2019. That’s nearly 5% of the city’s annual murders, even though less than 1% of the city’s population is thought to be homeless.

New York Mayor Eric Adams rolled out a Subway Safety Plan on February 18, which pointedly cracked down on homeless people seeking shelter in stations and trains, linking them to increased crime. While the language of the plan acknowledges that unhoused people are commonly victims of crimes, and that we should not equate homelessness with crime, Adams’ own rhetoric surrounding the issue has been less nuanced.

In a January 18 press conference, Adams, a former NYPD captain, invoked images of homelessness and mental instability to demonstrate the ubiquitousness of crime underground:

Day one [in office], January 1, when I took the train, I saw the homelessness, the yelling, the screaming early in the morning. Crimes right outside the platform.

Equating subway sleeping with violent crime

News outlets have likewise conflated homelessness with disorder, danger and crime. Coverage has often reported attacks in which suspects are not homeless alongside descriptions of Adams’ homeless-focused plan and images of people sleeping in subway cars.

On the weekend of February 19, eight more violent attacks occurred on New York City’s subway system, just as Adams rolled out his Subway Safety Plan. Outlets used imagery of unhoused people sleeping on trains to evoke chaos underground.

“Homeless sleep on subway, a man is attacked with a hatchet and a woman is hit in the face with a metal bar… the rocky first day of Eric Adams’ subway safety plan,” read a Daily Mail headline (2/21/22).

Bloomberg (2/22/22) ran with the headline, “NYC Begins Plan to Move Homeless From Subway as Crime Surges.” While Bloomberg led with the issue of homelessness, the piece did not mention that only one of the suspects was homeless until halfway through. “Of the eight subway attacks [the weekend of February 19], one was believed to be by a homeless person, according to the NYPD,” the piece went on to say.

Notably, the New York Times’ coverage (2/21/22) made this clear in the story’s subheadline:

The mayor and governor released a safety plan for the subways that focused on homelessness. But a homeless person was believed to be responsible in only one of the weekend attacks.

“So much for the crackdown on crime and homelessness on NYC’s subway! Boy, 6, is threatened by baton-wielding subway rider as photos capture vagrants lying across seats and passing out the day after Mayor Adams’s transit safety plan went into effect,” read a Daily Mail headline (2/22/22). “The subway’s homeless population has been blamed for a rise in crime in the subway system,” the report noted, adding, “Over the weekend, several innocent passengers were attacked in half a dozen attacks”—implying a connection between homelessness and the attacks not substantiated by evidence.

The piece included a gallery of photos depicting homeless people sleeping on trains, but didn’t mention the housing status of the man later identified as the suspect in the baton attack. No other coverage of the incident identifies him as homeless.

A Fox News article (2/21/22) that described each late-February attack also made homelessness the focus. The article intersperses text with images of individuals sleeping on trains and in stations; describes the prevalence of fare evasion; and outlines Adams’ plan to remove homeless people from the system:

His administration’s “Subway Safety Plan” will deploy 30 joint response teams to do direct outreach for the homeless and those suffering from mental illness in the subways, according to a press release.… Under the plan, the city will require every person riding the subway to exit at the train’s final stop. Homeless individuals who exit at the end of the line will be greeted by the “end of the line” teams that will offer support.

A WABC TV report (2/21/22) centered on an interview with a homeless man who was kicked out of the subway system by police on the first day of the Subway Safety Plan’s rollout. It mentioned the eight attacks that occurred over the weekend—but not the fact that only one involved a homeless suspect. The coverage rightfully went on to focus on the impact the crackdown has on homeless people sheltering in the system, but failing to clarify details about the crimes in the first place paints the nonviolent homeless interviewee as the exception, not the norm.

‘Do more, and faster’

The following week, two more assaults made headlines: A homeless man allegedly attacked a woman in the Queens Plaza station with a hammer, leaving her in critical condition. Another person, who has not yet been identified, hit a rider with a metal pole on a J train.

In response to the Queens hammer attack, the New York Post editorial board (2/26/22) demanded, “Adams Needs to Do More, and Faster, to Halt Soaring NYC Crime.” It explained:

On Monday, Adams rolled out his comprehensive subway safety plan to a slow start, especially after a violent holiday weekend that included a string of stabbings and an assault with a metal pole. Yet the bad news has kept coming, including a Thursday night hammer attack in the Queens Plaza station that left a woman in critical condition, a second metal-pole attack—this time because the victim dared to tell his attacker not to shoot up on a J train—and a disturbing MTA report that hundreds of homeless people are living in stations and tunnels.

Mentioning two violent attacks in the same sentence as the prevalence of people living in the subway system misleadingly implies that the circumstances are directly related.

Though homeless, William Blount, the alleged hammer attacker, was not living in the subway system at the time of the attack, as the Post’s reporting might imply. Police reported he lived at the Radisson Hotel on Wall Street, which was converted to a homeless shelter during the pandemic (Sunnyside Post, 2/27/22).

This lumping together of unrelated facts props up Adams’ plan by demonizing those seeking shelter underground. Clarifying this detail would challenge the very framework the plan is built on: that kicking out homeless people living in the subway will solve the crime problem.

Also referencing the hammer attack, the New York Daily News (2/27/22) reported, “Homeless Man Arrested for Vicious Subway Hammer Attack on NYC Department of Health Worker.” Notice how Blount’s housing status and the victim’s occupation take precedence in this headline. It’s the perfect villain-versus-hero juxtaposition.

But what happens when these narratives don’t have the perfect victims?

More often victims

Homeless advocates say unhoused people are more likely to be the victims than perpetrators of violent crime. These numbers are hard to track, because police departments rarely record the housing status of people in their reports, and many crimes involving homeless victims go unreported. But data suggests that homeless people are more vulnerable to violent crime than the population at large.

A 2014 National Health Care for the Homeless Council study reported that “homelessness increases vulnerability to violence victimization.” The study was based on a survey of approximately 500 homeless individuals in five cities across the US. Forty-nine percent of respondents said they’d been victims of a violent attack, and 62% said they’d witnessed a violent attack against another homeless individual.

The Los Angeles Police Department is a rare example of a police department that records data on the housing status of both perpetrators and victims of crime. The information is available through the department’s open data portal. An ABC7 LA analysis of this data found that while homeless numbers in the city rose drastically during the pandemic, crimes that involved people who were homeless did not rise proportionally.

The Associated Press (1/28/22) found that of the 397 homicides that occurred in Los Angeles in 2021, 11% of the suspects were homeless. More than twice as many—23%—were victims. In 7% of the cases, homeless people who were homeless were both the victim and the suspect.

Furthermore, the National Coalition for the Homeless reports that many crimes perpetrated by housed people against the unhoused are “believed to have been motivated by the perpetrators’ biases against people experiencing homelessness or by their ability to target homeless people with relative ease.”

Exacerbating contempt

Before the recent shootings of five unhoused people in New York and DC by the same assailant, the Washington Post (1/24/22) outlined five attacks against homeless people that occurred nationwide in recent months:

  • Jerome Antonio Price and an unnamed victim were fatally shot in Miami. Both were linked to the suspect, Willy Suarez Maceo, who authorities say targeted people without homes. Maceo may also be responsible for another murder of a homeless man which occurred in October 2021.
  • Warren Barnes was murdered and dismembered in Grand Junction, Colorado, in January 2021. The suspect, 19-year-old Brian Cohee II, told investigators he had been planning to kill someone for six months, and drove around encampments of unhoused people at night to search for a victim. He reportedly said he planned to target a homeless person or sex worker because it wouldn’t draw much attention (NBC11, 1/13/22).
  • An unidentified man sheltering in a New York City NYCHA building staircase was set on fire while he was sleeping. He died 13 days later. The suspect, Nathaniel Terry, told authorities he was trying to “scare the victim off.”
  • Four teens were charged in the beating of a sleeping homeless woman in Spokane, Washington, in September 2021.

In its coverage of the March shootings of five homeless men in DC and New York, the New York Times (3/13/22) also referenced the 2019 attacks on five men without homes in Chinatown (New York Times, 10/5/19), the December 2021 beating of a man sleeping in a bank vestibule (Daily News, 12/30/21) and the February 2022 stabbing of a homeless man in a Queens subway station (AMNY, 2/19/22).

Prior to that report, the paper of record had only covered one of the three referenced incidents.

Activists are worried disproportionate reporting on homeless people as criminals will exacerbate this contempt for homeless lives. Joseph Loonam, housing campaigns coordinator at the harm reduction group VOCAL NY, told FAIR that viewing unhoused people as second-class citizens in legislation and the press leads to violence against them: “A private citizen took upon himself to take a gun and shoot random men on the street, you know, in two major cities over the weekend,” Loonam said:

And that’s not a unique thing that’s happened. I wrote a press response to that. And it’s the third one I’ve had to write in two years because of violence perpetrated against people on the street.

Quantity—and quality—of coverage

Murders of homeless people also receive less coverage than murders of people with homes. In fact, a Fox News headquarters Christmas tree set on fire by a man without a home in December received more global news coverage (a Nexis search turned up 120 results in the month following the incident) than an unhoused man fatally set on fire a month earlier. (A similar search found five reports in the month after the attack.)

A search for “Michelle Go,” the name of the woman pushed in front of a subway train, turned up 565 results in the month following her death.

Both victims’ lives mattered. Both deserve justice and the attention that news coverage brings.

Also notable is how the victims of violent crimes are portrayed. In the case of the nonfatal Queens subway hammer attack, victim Nina Rothschild was heralded as a “healthcare hero” at the Department of Health Research (Daily News, 2/27/22). Go received profiles lauding her work as a Deloitte consultant and homeless activist (New York Post, 1/16/22; CNN, 1/19/22; New York Times, 1/19/22). But homeless crime victims are often anonymous at best. At worst, they’re reduced to terms like “homeless addict” (Daily News, 11/20/21), as the man who was burned to death was described.

Of course, no outlet is at fault for not being able to profile a victim whom police are unable to identify. But in its reporting on the November immolation, the New York Post (11/20/21) shared more positive statements about the suspect, quoting a neighbor who described him as “an upstanding guy” who lived with his girlfriend, took care of his disabled mother and played with his dogs in a nearby park .

“Instead of providing safe, decent affordable low-income housing—you have the homeless, the drug addled camping out in stairwells turning the [Gompers] houses into an open air drug market and makeshift shelter,” an unnamed “law enforcement source” was quoted saying—as if the central problem in the story was the homeless victim, not the housed person who lit him on fire.

A notable example of a reporter taking the time to profile a homeless murder victim with dignity appeared in the Grand Junction, Colorado, local paper, the Daily Sentinel (3/12/21). The piece, by reporter Dan West, profiled 69-year-old Warren Barnes, whom locals remembered as kind, smart and gentle.

But a person need not enjoy reading, feeding birds or helping local business owners carry boxes to deserve dignity and justice. “Addicts,” “vagrants” and those struggling with mental illness are human beings, too.

When they ‘don’t want help’

A New York Post opinion piece by Nicole Gelinas (1/9/22) asked, “On Subway Disorder, Adams Must Answer: What Happens When Homeless Don’t Want Help?”

After acknowledging that homeless people are often victims of violent crimes on the subways, Gelinas dismissed legitimate reasons as to why people deny help:

Most chronic street homeless people have already had contact with civilian outreach staff but haven’t taken aid. Some people find shelters dangerous; others chafe under no-drug rules and curfews. Some people can’t make a rational decision.

She also refers to homelessness, along with farebeating, as a “subway scourge,” and appears to suggest cops should arrest the unhoused, even if no criminal activity is taking place:

Adams said only that police officers won’t “engage, unless there is some criminal activity taking place.” Will the people like the man sleeping next to Adams New Year’s Day be left to their own devices if they tell outreach workers to go away?

Instead of blaming these people for not taking advantage of help, journalists should be asking what systemic flaws exist that make sleeping in a subway car more favorable than staying in a shelter. Why are people “screaming” on subway platforms, to use Adams’ words, rather than obtaining mental healthcare?

Shelters, which often have tight rules and regulations, inflexible meal times and strict curfews, can make it difficult for individuals to maintain jobs and tend to family members. They’re also often overcrowded, sometimes with 100 barrack-style beds to a room. This living situation is not only disruptive, but it can be triggering with people suffering from schizophrenia or PTSD, not to mention a hotbed for Covid.

The Indypendent (2/25/22) recently published homeless New Yorkers’ response to Adams’ plan. One interviewee said a guard at the shelter they were staying at stole $800 from them.

A 2012 Talk of the Nation episode (NPR, 12/6/12) featured a formerly homeless man who said he had refused shelter because his untreated schizophrenia made him paranoid in large crowds. He also reported facilities were dirty and lice-ridden.

‘People in handcuffs’

A report on the first day of the Subway Safety Plan by NBC4 New York’s Jessica Cunningham (2/21/22) insisted:

Teams of officers and social workers were deployed late this afternoon, not to arrest, but to get the homeless and mentally ill help, including requiring everyone to get off the train at the end of the line.

Absent from the report were the voices of those who are still wary of Adams’ vow to make police “omnipresent” underground, especially those on “end-of-the-line” teams aimed at preventing people from sleeping on trains.

“That’s going to happen with people in handcuffs,” Cal Hedigan, CEO of Community Access told USA Today (2/21/22).

And it did. According to VOCAL NY, 153 people were arrested in the first three weeks Adams’ plan. Only 22 have been transferred to permanent shelter.

Homeless people experience increased exposure to law enforcement and are often charged with low-level “public nuisance” crimes like panhandling, camping and loitering. Circumstances surrounding homelessness lead to people failing to pay fines or appear for court dates, which can result in incarceration.

The Urban Institute reports cycling these people through facilities like jails and emergency rooms simply perpetuate the cycle of homelessness.

Additionally, a report by the Prison Policy Initiative estimates that people who have been incarcerated are ten times more likely to experience homelessness after release than the general population.

VOCAL NY’s Loonam makes makes clear that homelessness is first and foremost a housing issue, despite common legal and press rhetoric attributing it to mental illness, crime and substance use. He says the recent New York and DC shootings demonstrate the need for more affordable housing and accessible shelters—not more cops.

“They don’t need more police,” Loonam says:

They needed to be placed somewhere where they could keep themselves safe. And we need more people in the media and elected officials to be looking at this problem as that: as a as a problem of a lack of affordable housing in our city in our country.

By FAIR

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