“They all have guns” an elderly gray-haired lady said, “every night it’s like the Vietnam war all over again out there.” The ‘there’ she is talking about is a local park at the center of a conflict between unhoused people unmanaged camping in the park and its’ nearby housed neighbors who want the park empty of all campers for their sense of safety and aesthetics.
The scene is a meeting attended by more than twenty, mostly seniors, who sit around chatting about old friends, coffee, and the ideal time to plant seeds. Next to the donut table sat two elderly gentlemen with hats identifying them as Vietnam Veterans.
“How accurate is the park to Vietnam comparison,” I ask the fellas after the meeting.
“Just as bad,” said one in between maple bar bites.
“Nothing’s that bad,” said the other before swigging back more coffee.
“They all have guns and looking to shoot somebody, sounds like what I remember of the war,” offered the maple bar man in what would lead to a ten-minute conversation about the prevalence of guns among the homeless.
Whereas I lack any war experience, I do possess both formal and informal expertise in the culture of street crime and understood firearms to be a rare possession among the homeless, many of whom rely on the presence of others, knives or dogs for protection. However, the neighbors’ claims made me curious so I left intending to delve more into the idea of armed Rambo-style campers in city parks. I found that such claims are hard to substantiate.
According to journalist Kyle Iboshi, “It’s difficult to measure the increase in gun violence among the homeless because nobody’s tracking the data. Unlike sex or race, housing status is not something detectives log when recording a crime victim’s data1.” Although Iboshi was writing about increased gun victimization of the homeless, the data is equally difficult to track in relation to possessing firearms since housing status isn’t a generally tracked status.
Surprisingly however, there is plenty of data showing that homeless people are more often victims of violent crime, rather than perpetrators2. Additionally, according to Greg Townley, professor and co- founder of the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative at Portland State University, “It's also really important to know that there are many instances of housed people enacting violence against people who are homeless.3”
In looking to establish how violent a threat the homeless are to homeowners, one quickly discovers that it’s actually the housed who victimize the houseless more often. A report by The National Coalition for the Homeless found “the number of undeclared hate crimes resulting in the death of a homeless person happened at double the rate of other hate crime deaths based on religion, race or disability. Between 1999 and 2017, hate crime deaths among the general population totaled 183. In this same time period, 483 homeless people were killed in attacks by housed people4.”
In addition to our unsheltered neighbors facing increased harassment, assault and victimization, they experience additional harm when “they all got guns” thinking and other myths influence our public opinion and perception in ways making it more challenging to look beyond the stereo-types and towards implementing evidence-based solutions to our housing crisis such as affordability assistance, housing- first programs and wrap-around services.
1 www.kgw.com/article/news/investigations/portland-gun-violence-increasingly-impacting-homeless/283- 22837453-80bf-4d99-927e-6ec07469af5b 2 Homeless people are more likely to be victims of violence than housed people | Street Roots 3 Id 4 Homeless people are more likely to be victims of violence than housed people | Street Roots