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How we see the homeless as perpetrators, and not survivors, of violence

How we see the homeless as perpetrators, and not survivors, of violence

A new report by Dr Catherine Robinson uses real-life stories to understand homeless people’s experiences of violence. The report, Rough Living: Surviving Violence and Homelessness, found that survivors often experienced repeated violence before, as well as while, they were living homeless. Many homeless women, in particular, experience sexual assault and abuse and the report notes that more policy and research is needed to understand and deal with this issue. Despite common perceptions of homeless people as drug addicts and criminals, Rough Living shows that people experiencing homelessness are far more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violence. [stextbox id="grey"]This is an excerpt of a report on violence and homelessness: Rough Living: Surviving Violence and Homelessness by Dr Catherine Robinson. Republished with permission. DVRCV has added headings. Read the full report.[/stextbox]

Violence as 'normal'

Despite consistent reports of repeated experiences of violence occurring both before and whilst living homeless, it was observed that little current local documentation or wider policy acknowledgment of these exists. Most distressing, however, was the perception identified amongst victims that often brutal and repetitive victimisation was a ‘normal’ and accepted part of everyday life in the past and present, and an expected part of everyday life in the future. It is well known that the population of those currently experiencing homelessness in Australia has now reached over 100,000, with 27,000 estimated to be living in NSW, and 16,000 in the greater Sydney region (Chamberlain & MacKenzie 2009, p. 45). [It  is] deeply troubling that more commonly public policy and public opinion address homeless people as perpetrators of crime (Strategic Partners 1999, p. 37).

1 in 2 homeless people experience violence or sexual assault

This is disturbing in a context in which one Australian study concluded simply that ‘a lifetime experience of trauma is common among homeless people’ (Buhrich, Hodder & Teesson 2000, p. 966), with half of the female participants reporting rape and over half of male and female participants reporting physical assault (Buhrich, Hodder & Teesson 2000, p. 965). Half of the homeless respondents in a more recent Australian study indicated they had been violently victimised at least once in the past year (Larney et al. 2009, p. 348).

How we see homeless people as 'criminal offenders'

As Gaetz (2004, p. 447) concludes, however, ‘the homeless in general are cast not as real or potential victims … but rather, as criminal offenders’ (see also Alder 1991, p. 3; Strategic Partners 1999, pp. 4–5) and as a result public policy falls short of fully confronting violent victimisation as a central theme in homelessness.

Lack of research and policy on sexual violence and homeless women

As Morrison (2009, pp. 2–3) points out in the Australian context, for example, it is a surprising oversight that neither homeless policy nor research yet adequately addresses sexual violence, which remains so pivotal in the lives of many homeless women in particular.

Young homeless people

It has also been argued that crime prevention frameworks implicitly underpin the current policy and practice shift towards early intervention strategies aimed at homeless young people in particular (Strategic Partners 1999, p. 37). Here again, an explicit recognition of young homeless people’s likely experience of violent victimisation remains missing.

"Homeless people deserve violence - they have risky lifestyles"

The silencing of homeless people’s experience of victimisation is ensured socially by beliefs that homeless people are somehow deserving of violence because of their risky lifestyles – most extremely demonstrated in the active perpetration of violent hate crimes against those homeless (NCH/NLCHP 2008; Wessler & Melnick 2005). It is also ensured institutionally by the exclusion of homeless people from national crime surveys which inform crime prevention policy and through the evolution of service sectors without resources and time to offer more than superficial care to homeless people.

Under-reporting of violence

Further, the entrenched under-reporting of victimisation by homeless people suspicious of law enforcement and emergency health agencies only serves to further cyclically perpetuate these silences.

Who are the real criminal offenders?

It is also tragically ironic that in the public domain homeless people are understood as a threat, despite the fact that, internationally and in Australia, homeless people strikingly report random members of the community (Alder 1991, p. 6; Ballintyne 1999, p. 15; Newburn & Rock 2005, p. 27) and indeed law enforcement officers (Alder 1991, p. 6; Zakrison, Hamel & Hwang 2004) as major perpetrators of violent crime against them. Full report by: Dr Catherine Robinson Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences University of Technology, Sydney This research project was funded by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), for the Homeless Persons’ Legal Service (HPLS), a joint initiative of PIAC and the Public Interest Law Clearing House NSW.

Image credit

Photo from Flickr by stevie withers Creative Commons Attribution License