The April 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Murder of Mary Katherine King

Eyes Wide Open

California Lifts Food Stamp Ban

The Ordeal of Ramona Choyce

Republicans Shred Disabled Housing

Art and Activism of Jos Sances

The Paintings of Jos Sances

Gambling with Social Security

Billionaires Grow Richer, Poverty Worsens

Existence Itself Is Banned for the Homeless Poor

Bush Policy Errs on Chronic Homelessness

Sankofa House: A Rainbow for Homeless Women

Student Summit Against Hunger

A Lifetime at the Bus Stop

Working for Transit Justice

Poor Leonard's Almanack

BOSS Community Organizing

The Anguish of Classism





May 2005

February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

The Murder of a Homeless Woman in Berkeley

by Terry Messman

Artists have pasted these stark images of "Preventable Deaths" to warn the public that homeless deaths are a tragedy that could be prevented. Photo by Lydia Gans

Picture yourself as a homeless woman trying to sleep on Berkeley's streets on the night after news of Mary Katherine King's murder became public.

The brutal assault and murder of a homeless woman in downtown Berkeley brings into sharp focus the terrible dangers faced by women living on the streets. Homelessness is a dangerous and even life-threatening predicament for everyone who undergoes it. But because of their vulnerability to the ever-present threat of assault, rape and murder, homeless women face a heightened risk of violence and death on the streets.

Mary Katherine King, a 45-year-old woman who had a master's degree in history and had worked as a teacher before becoming homeless, was sleeping near the corner of California Street and University Avenue in Berkeley. While she slept, all alone, four men came up to her after midnight, and two of them kicked her in the head and beat her into unconsciousness.

After the savage, unprovoked assault on February 8, King was taken to Highland Hospital in a coma. She never regained consciousness, and died 12 days later, on February 20, 2005.
Police arrested Jarell Johnson, 18, and have charged him with King's murder. They are still looking for a second assailant.

Mary Katherine King died to make us understand the human costs of allowing thousands of women, men and children to remain homeless in the Bay Area. We complacently allow our fellow human beings -- even disabled people, and women with children -- to face the hazards of street life, isolated and unprotected.

As a society, we have grown increasingly unconcerned about the terrible dangers of allowing vulnerable people to languish on the streets. In a very real way, our society neglects people to death.

Homeless women are exposed to the dangers of assault and rape 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Picture yourself, alone and without any friends or family at your side, forced to sleep all night on a dark street corner in a crime-ridden area. Picture your fear all night long, waking up startled at every sound on the noisy, restless streets.

Now picture yourself as a homeless woman trying to sleep on those streets on the night after news of Mary Katherine King's murder became public.

In the richest nation on earth, too many people have no alternative but to live a life on the streets that is darkened by harrowing poverty, shortened by danger and disease, and fraught with deadly peril.

Even though homeless women face especially high risks of being assaulted, murdered, robbed or raped, anyone living on the streets can become a casualty.

Last July 18, Dalrus Joseph Brown, 52, was viciously murdered in the middle of the night by a group of young men, ages 15-16, who attacked him while he was sleeping along the railroad tracks in West Oakland. The teenagers repeatedly kicked Brown, shot him with a BB gun, and beat him to death with metal pipes and boards, then tore apart his little shelter.

The murder of Brown was only the latest in a series of violent assaults on homeless people in West Oakland, apparently by groups of men who had singled out their victims for attack simply because they were homeless.

A wave of hate crimes

The murders of Mary Katherine King in Berkeley and Dalrus Joseph Brown in Oakland are local examples of a growing wave of violent crimes against homeless people. In California and across the nation, homeless people have been stalked, denounced as bums and drug addicts, then attacked, beaten, set on fire, slashed with knives and shot to death. Many of the attacks are committed by impressionable people who are influenced by the public defamation of homeless people by the media and politicians.

Over the last four years, the National Coalition for the Homeless has carefully documented 280 hate crimes against homeless people, including 131 murders. The crimes have ranged from beheading to drowning to firebombing.

Living on the streets is far more dangerous than most non-homeless people ever realize. The pressing need for society to alleviate and abolish homelessness is made even more urgent when we consider how many homeless people succumb to a premature death. The statistics are shocking. A national survey of homeless deaths found that, although the average life expectancy of U.S. citizens is over 70, the average age of homeless people who died on the streets was in the mid-40s. Mary King died at just about the national average.

Homelessness kills with a hundred different blows. In the Bay Area, people have perished in fires that raced through homeless encampments and have been murdered in brutal street assaults; still others were felled by hypothermia and pneumonia after prolonged exposure to the elements, or succumbed to tuberculosis, AIDS, heart attacks and drug and alcohol abuse, all diseases worsened by the stress of living on the streets.

All these premature deaths are tragedies that could have been prevented by providing decent levels of health care, affordable housing, adequate nutrition, drug and alcohol programs, and simply a safe, sanitary place to sleep at night.

But the shocking rise in hate crimes shows that a new form of intense prejudice against homeless people has become one of the leading threats to their survival. These crimes have risen at a time when politicians, the media and business owners are putting out a constant message that homeless people are unwanted outcasts.

A Continuum of Contempt

This message, repeated in political campaigns, radio talk shows, TV news and even on billboards that attack the homeless, can have deadly consequences. These messages that scapegoat homeless people are the diametric opposite of the "Continuum of Care" that our society is supposed to be building for poor people.

This widespread prejudice makes up a "Continuum of Contempt" that stretches from the bigoted anti-homeless rants of talk radio, to the anti-homeless laws passed by city officials, all the way to the new wave of hate crimes and murders of people living on the streets.

It is socially acceptable today in mainstream society and in the media to make bigoted remarks against homeless people that could not be made in public against any other minority.

At the same time, homeless people have had their civil rights violated in nearly every major city in the United States. Their very existence has been criminalized and they have been driven out of certain neighborhoods and even entire cities by laws that can only be called de facto segregation ordinances - segregation based on economic class, instead of race.

Segregation and lynchings

Where have we seen this very same pattern in American history? African-American citizens were vilified by racists at all levels of society, criminalized by segregation laws, and had their civil rights constantly violated. This prejudice found its most savage expression in the lynchings and murder of innocent people by racist criminals.

Lynching has long been considered one of the most horrifying evils of our national history. But now homeless people are denigrated and denounced, criminalized by a new kind of segregation decree, and even murdered -- lynched -- by bigoted criminals.

Welcome to the 21st century. It is still safe to utter venomous words of bigotry against the poorest of the poor. It is still permissible for city officials to pass segregation laws aimed at driving out an unwanted minority group. It is still a widespread practice to beat and stab and set on fire the members of a minority group that is widely hated. Lynching is still used to intimidate and terrify this minority.

I have heard horrible words of prejudice uttered against homeless people in university classrooms by affluent students, and on TV news broadcasts by well-groomed anchormen. I have heard homeless people denounced by police officers who are supposed to protect and serve all citizens, and by oh-so-respectable mayors who know that this is one minority it is safe to attack.

When these words of prejudice against the poor are uttered by wealthy talk show hosts and news broadcasters, I hear a form of bigotry that should have been eliminated in this nation long ago. And when anti-homeless laws are passed by highly respected pillars of society, I see blood on their seemingly immaculate hands.

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