Violent acts committed by homeless individuals are on the rise in the state of California, particularly in the greater Los Angeles metro area. A number of factors have contributed to this shocking turn of events, particularly in the failures of state authorities in implementing prison reform programs. Prisoners released to the streets of the city may not have had adequate counseling and training to prepare them for a life outside the prison walls, and many inmates released early have no recourse but to be homeless.
A Grisly Murder in Stamford
On September 25, 2019, police responded to a home on Cove Road in the city of Stamford. Isabella Mehner, 93, was found dead at the bottom of her cellar stairs. After an examination by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Ms. Mehner’s injuries were ruled suspicious and her death was classified as a homicide.
Using video surveillance footage of the area, authorities discovered that 51-year old former California inmate Robert Simmons was responsible. He was found wearing clothing with Mehner’s blood on them, and was also in possession of a diamond wedding ring belonging to the deceased woman. He was charged with felony murder, murder, and home invasion in the crime, and faces a prison sentence of up to 60 years. It is believed that Simmons, who was homeless, targeted his victim, as he had performed work at her residence in years past.
Violence Against Homeless People
Homeless individuals are not only the perpetrators of heinous crimes against others, but they may also be victims themselves. Homeless-on-homeless crimes have skyrocketed in the Los Angeles area; in all, 42 homeless people were murdered in 2019 and hundreds more were the victims of assaults and rapes. 17 percent of all homicides in Los Angeles in 2019 had a homeless individual as the victim. Typically, the perpetrator or perpetrators of these crimes were fellow homeless individuals.
Failures in Prison Reform
According to statistics compiled by the City of Los Angeles, about 36,000 homeless people can be found within city limits, and a total exceeding 59,000 homeless individuals occupy Los Angeles County. Many of those homeless individuals are former inmates of the state’s sprawling prison system. Prison reform and early-release programs initiated by former Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown are partially to blame for the staggering numbers in the homeless population.
Under early-release programs, inmates deemed non-violent are often tagged to be freed in advance of the completion of their sentences. Unfortunately, California’s prisons are woefully lacking in vocational and counseling programs for inmates, particularly those who may be released early. Prisoners often do not have the coping skills or vocational training needed to rejoin society as productive members. A surprising number of early-release inmates have substance abuse problems or undiagnosed/untreated mental illnesses that prevent them from living peacefully in California’s communities. High median home rental costs are also prohibitive, preventing many individuals – including released inmates – from being able to afford homes. The result is that these people are driven to the streets, appearing in homeless camps and “tent cities” across the region.
The Homeless Crisis Worsens
California Governor Gavin Newsom has been blamed on the federal level for failures to properly address the homeless crisis in the state. President Donald Trump has announced that he has directed federal agencies to examine ways to crack down on the homeless population and the rise in violent crimes. Trump has tweeted extensively against Governor Newsom, claiming that he is solely responsible for the homeless problem.
Newsom isn’t the only target of Trump’s ire. Trump has also attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose hometown of San Francisco is also plagued by high homeless rates and an increase in violent crimes. In general, Trump blames the ineffectiveness of Democrat-led programs and services in contributing to homeless problems in the state’s communities.
In all, homeless populations in California rose by more than 16 percent in 2019 alone. A patchwork of community efforts and both municipal and statewide initiatives have been unable to stem the tide of homeless people. Governor Newsom has earmarked over $1 billion in the state’s 2019-2020 budget to fight homelessness and has also made it easier for cities to apply for emergency funding to combat homeless issues. With these funds, emergency shelters and service organizations can work to get people off the streets, potentially reducing the levels of violent crime committed by and against homeless people.
Money to fight homelessness is only part of a more comprehensive solution. Much more work needs to be done, including revisiting prison and prisoner reform programs in the state’s correctional facilities. Prisoners must be given the tools and the skills they need to rejoin society, including vocational and technical training to provide them with marketable job skills. Mental health and substance abuse counseling must also be provided, giving inmates the ability to become productive members of the communities into which they are released at the ends of their sentences.