The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

2003: Homelessness and Crime


Homeless population poses criminal risks

By Robert Stacy McCain
Brian David Mitchell was in many ways typical of the homeless, with a history of substance abuse and symptoms of mental illness.

It was not until his arrest last week in the kidnapping of Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart, however, that the self-anointed “prophet” brought attention to another aspect of America’s homeless problem: As many as half of the homeless have criminal records, and some have committed serious violent crimes, including rape and murder.

“There’s no question that a certain percentage of homeless people on the street are dangerous or violent,” said Heather Mac Donald, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written extensively on the issue. “These are not gentle lambs.”

Miss Mac Donald said liberal activists achieved a “public relations coup” by popularizing the term “homeless” and creating an image of the people once commonly called “bums” as harmless and innocent victims of society.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, has compared the homeless to the baby Jesus, saying in December 1999 that Christmas celebrates “the birth of a homeless child.”

“Criminalizing the homeless, with mass arrests for those whose only offense is that they have no home, is wrong,” Mrs. Clinton said during her Senate campaign.

But police in many communities recognize the threat posed by the homeless, and some charities devoted to helping the homeless concede that many of their clients are former convicts.

A survey conducted two years ago by the Boston Rescue Mission found that 49 percent of their clients said they had criminal records, and 32 percent said they had spent time in prison, while 12 percent said they were discharged directly from a prison to a shelter.

A study in Cambridge, Mass., found that the homeless, though 0.5 percent of the population, accounted for 10 percent of all arrests during a two-year period — including 40 arrests for assault or aggravated assault, 18 for burglary, eight for robbery, 54 for shoplifting, 18 for sale or possession of narcotics, and one for rape.

In Los Angeles, a police sweep of the homeless in December resulted in 214 arrests, including the capture of more than 100 parole violators.

Mr. Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Ilene Barzee, had spent years panhandling on the streets of Salt Lake City. “I’ve seen them around over the years,” said free-lance photographer Dan Gorder. “They were just standard, quirky people downtown.”

Now accused of kidnapping a 14-year-old girl to fulfill a reported “vision” that commanded Mr. Mitchell to take seven young brides, the two are among many other homeless people who have been charged with serious crimes:

  • In December, a 42-year-old woman was dragged from a park bench in Queens, N.Y., and gang-raped by five homeless men, all illegal aliens. She is suing the city and its Transit Authority, saying they failed to act when community activists complained about illegal immigrants living near train tracks in the neighborhood.
  • Police arrested Juan Carlos Aguilar, 35, in July after, they say, the homeless man molested at least nine girls, ages 4 to 10, in El Mirage and Glendale, Ariz. Police say he molested the girls at the public library while pretending to help them read or play on computers.
  • In April, John Albert Harris, 35, a homeless man, was charged in the 1998 murder in Nashville, Tenn., of Tammy Paula Ranking, 29. The charge was the result of DNA evidence obtained from Harris after an armed robbery conviction.
  • Emiliano Martinez Lopez, 18, was fatally stabbed in downtown Long Branch, N.J., in April. Gustavo Guzman, 27, a homeless illegal immigrant, was charged with homicide.
  • Three homeless men in Las Vegas were charged with murder in the January 2001 stabbing death of Tiffany Averill, 67. Police say the men broke into the woman’s trailer to steal her husband’s gun collection.
  • On Jan. 11, a homeless man was charged with raping a 19-year-old woman at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Many who have studied homelessness blame the problem on Supreme Court rulings in the 1970s, that invalidated vagrancy laws and made it more difficult to commit the mentally ill to psychiatric wards.

Social workers in Salt Lake City believed the man accused of kidnapping Elizabeth was delusional and in need of treatment, but said they could not force him to seek help.

Lois Smart’s decision to bring Mr. Mitchell to her family’s home may have been influenced by sympathetic portrayals of the homeless in the press, on television and in the movies.

“This is a troubled population,” Miss Mac Donald said. “This is a population that has serious risks. I think we’ve been lulled into a sense of false security.”

Like Elizabeth’s mother, a 59-year-old woman in Akron, Ohio, tried to help a homeless man last year by giving him a job doing household repairs. She even let Mike Dennison, 46, live in her home.

She didn’t know that Dennison was a fugitive wanted in two states, with a criminal record that included forgery, car theft and sexual assault. Police discovered his criminal background shortly after Dennison was arrested Nov. 14 and charged with raping the woman’s 8-year-old granddaughter.

“He had no place to live. I have this save-the-world policy,” the Akron grandmother told a reporter, but added: “My save-the-world policy is done.”