It's difficult to get a handle on how many people are assaulted and how to prevent it. The homeless don't always report incidents.
Joseph Desenclos takes pride in knowing the names of many of the people he finds living on the streets of Minneapolis.
But the black eyes, swollen faces and missing teeth that the street-outreach worker's homeless clients often bear as the result of random attacks can make even a familiar face unrecognizable.
Those beaten faces are ugly reminders of a well-known problem -- the violence frequently directed at Minneapolis' homeless population. But, police and advocates say, it's difficult to get a handle on just how many people are being assaulted and how to prevent it.
On July 8, a 50-year-old homeless man died in a Twin Cities hospital after he was punched and beaten with a baseball bat while being robbed of $5 by a Minneapolis man and a Richfield teen. In June, a woman driving downtown spotted eight to 10 people in the middle of the street punching and kicking a homeless man, who was bleeding from his nose and appeared unconscious when police arrived. In May, another homeless man was burned so badly while camping out under the Interstate 394 bridge at Dunwoody Avenue that his legs had to be amputated, and he soon died in a hospital.
"Violence? It's commonplace," Desenclos said.
He's part of a team from St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis that canvasses downtown to connect homeless people with resources. The team works closely with the Downtown Improvement District and police. It also responds to calls in other areas of Hennepin County.
Fears for his life
One of the people Desenclos checked in on earlier this month was Eric LaCour, 44, who was camping at Peavey Plaza, a popular spot for homeless people. In his 11 years on the street, LaCour said he had seen a lot of violence against the homeless. One woman he knew was strangled while she slept.
"Every night that I lay my head down, I'm in fear of my life," said LaCour, who said he believes he's lucky to have survived so long without being attacked.
Peavey Plaza was temporarily closed last Tuesday for "cleaning and maintenance" after police observed that homeless people had replaced the Occupy protesters who demonstrated there earlier this year. Police said that service calls to the plaza have risen by 260 percent over the last year and that arrests have gone up by 300 percent. Most were for low-level crimes, but some involved criminal sexual conduct, robberies and serious assaults.
Robert Fischer, a community organizer for Homeless Against Homelessness, a homeless advocacy group within St. Stephen's Human Services, said those living on the streets are very vulnerable.
He knows from firsthand experience. He became homeless in 2002.
"I've seen stabbings. I've seen people get beat up. ... It does happen," Fischer said of his three years as a homeless person.
According to a Wilder Research report released in 2010, out of the more than 4,500 homeless people in Minnesota who were surveyed the year before, 20 percent of adults said they had been physically or sexually assaulted while homeless. Twelve percent had to seek health care because of an injury or illness resulting from violence in the past year.
Though violence against the homeless is a known issue, the problem has proven hard to track.
Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. Steve McCarty said he believes "a fair amount" of homeless people are being victimized in Minneapolis. But, he said, such attacks tend to be under-reported because the homeless, whether out of fear of police or other reasons, don't always report incidents.
"Those that do report crimes are difficult to locate for follow-up because of their transient lifestyle," he said.
In addition, police reports don't always detail whether somebody is homeless, which means there isn't much hard data about how many cases police have handled, McCarty said.
A negative perception
Desenclos said he and other outreach workers encourage the homeless they work with to report incidents, but many don't because they may not have had good experiences with police.
"People would say, 'What's the use?'" he said.
Another issue is society's negative perception of the homeless, said Luther Krueger, a crime-prevention analyst for the Minneapolis police.
"Some people may think harshly, 'These people deserve it. They are sleeping under a bridge -- what do they expect?'" Krueger said.
That attitude has to change, he said.
"You see somebody that's homeless and you look away. ... Well, stop doing that," he said.
Street outreach worker Jerry Fleischaker echoed others when he said that there was only one real solution to ending the violence against the homeless.
"Getting these people off the street is the only remedy," he said.
In Hennepin County, about 200 people were estimated to be unsheltered in a tally in January, according to a report released in May by the Minneapolis-Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness. That was a 40 percent reduction since 2010, according to the report.
While such a decline is certainly positive, said Cathy ten Broeke, the office's director, the most recent fatal attack showed that more resources are needed to reach her office's goal of ending homelessness in the county by the year 2016.
"As long as people are outside without safe housing, it's going to continue to happen," she said.
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495; Twitter: @stribnorfleet