James Patterson knows the dangers of living on the streets aren't limited to getting frostbite or getting arrested.
Patterson, who has been homeless for about four years, says one of the reasons he camps in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, instead of staying in town, is to protect himself against violence.
"I've known several people who've been attacked, beaten up," Patterson said while waiting for a meal at the Marian House soup kitchen last week.
His concern is justified, according to a report issued earlier this month by the National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington, D.C., non-profit organization. The report ranks Colorado Springs as the 10th-most dangerous city in America for homeless people, based on violence committed against the homeless from 1999 through 2002.
The Springs is tied in the rankings with Baltimore; Los Angeles; San Diego; Fort Worth, Texas; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Jeffersonville, Ind. Colorado Springs' ranking is based on two murders and two other attacks that took place in 2000. In May of that year, Leonard Burzynski, a 44-year-old homeless man, died after being beaten in Monument Valley Park. Four months later, John M. Jones, 42, was found beaten to death inside his sleeping bag underneath the Cimarron Street bridge. Two other homeless people reported being beaten around the same time by a band of teenagers armed with rocks and knives.
Denver tops the list of the most dangerous cities, followed by Las Vegas; Rapid City, S.D.; Toledo, Ohio; and New York. Nine homeless people were killed between 1999 and 2002 in Denver seven of them during a series of murders in 1999 that included the decapitation of two victims.
The Homeless Coalition reported that a total of 212 violent acts were committed against homeless people nationwide during the four-year period, 123 of which resulted in death. All of the perpetrators who were caught were non-homeless people.
Coalition officials say many of the attacks are "hate crimes," fueled by negative attitudes toward the homeless, and are calling for a congressional study to determine the causes, as well as strategies for prevention, education and law enforcement.
"Our country is in its darkest hour," said coalition chairman Donald Whitehead in a news release. "As more and more men, women and children are forced into poverty by worsening economic conditions and the widening and growing gap between the rich and the poor, their cries for help are not being greeted with kindness or benevolence, but are instead being greeted with apathy, violence and hate."
Colorado Springs City Council members who were asked about the report said they hadn't seen it.
"If we're 10th [most dangerous], that would alarm me," said District 3 Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, whose district includes areas of the city frequented by many homeless. "We need to do something," he declared, though he said he didn't know enough about the issue to make specific proposals.
"It's always dangerous to live on the streets," commented Councilman Tom Gallagher, who was homeless in the early 1980s. However, he said the city should play a limited role in addressing the issue. "I think it's more properly a role for non-profits."
Cyndy Kulp, director of the local Housing Advocacy Coalition, said the city should promote more affordable housing.
"There would be less homeless people if we had more low-cost housing," Kulp said.
City cracks down
Patterson, meanwhile, says that with the city cracking down on everything from panhandling to illegal camping in recent years, he worries just as much about being hassled by police as he does about being attacked.
At the same time, the city's crackdowns sends a message to the rest of the community that homeless people are unwelcome and that it's OK to attack them, Patterson says.
"People here want the homeless people gone," he said.
-- Terje Langeland
10 most dangerous cities for the homeless:
2. Las Vegas
3. Rapid City, S.D.
4. Toledo, Ohio
5. New York
7. Seattle; Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore. (tie)
10. Colorado Springs; Baltimore; Los Angeles; San Diego; Fort Worth, Texas; Jeffersonville, Ind.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Santa Cruz, Calif. (tie)