Police Violence, Homelessness, and Black Lives

No charges filed.

Such was the verdict in the case of Charley Leundeu Keunang, a Black Cameroonian emigrant who lived in LA’s Skid Row until being shot to death by three police officers in March 2015. The same decision was reached in the case of 29 year old Brandon Glenn, an unarmed homeless man who was shot and killed by LAPD officers in Venice Beach in May 2015; Albert Ramon Dorsey, a thirty year old man who was experiencing homelessness at the time of his shooting death at the hands of three local officers; and again in the case of Wayne Jones, a formerly-homeless man with documented mental health disorders who was killed by police in Virginia after being stopped for walking in the street.

The lengthy history of police violence against Black people is deep-rooted and notorious, as is the tradition of impunity for offending officers. Although they often receive little attention, Black people experiencing homelessness are part of this story, too.

Black People Experiencing Homelessness and Criminalization

This past summer has marked a reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement, spurred on by the consecutive killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd.  Black people who are killed while experiencing homelessness are frequently left out of the narrative though and we must make sure we are raising their names as part of the movement for racial justice.

Black Americans make up about thirteen percent of the U.S. population, according to the latest Census data. Yet they also make forty percent of the population of people experiencing homelessness nationwide. In DC, the figures are similar- about half of the capital’s residents are Black, but Black people make up fully 88% of people without homes in the city. Similarly, in contradiction to the relatively small percentage of the total population they comprise, Black people account for upwards of thirty percent of civilians killed in police interactions, and are killed by police at around 2.5 times the rate of white people on a national scale. Because of overcriminalization and extreme brutalization of communities of color by law enforcement, Black people and other people of color experiencing homelessness are at especially high risk of charged interactions with police.

The link between criminalization of homelessness and race is clear. Several cities and states across the country have introduced legislation that makes it illegal for unsheltered people to publicly engage in normal, life-sustaining activities like sleeping, eating, and soliciting money or food. These ordinances give law enforcement cause to accost and potentially harm homeless people, even if they are behaving peacefully. From 2011 to 2014, laws against sitting or lying down in public increased by nearly half, leading to increased instances of police contact with people experiencing homelessness. Taken together with the well-documented phenomenon of racialized police violence, along with the use of untrained officers as respondents to mental and behavioral health crises, and it becomes clear that people of color experiencing homelessness are at an extraordinary risk of being brutalized or killed by police.

Last week’s killing of Black unhoused Angeleno Kurt Andras Reinhold by two deputies reminds us that both homelessness and police violence are part of the lasting legacy of white supremacy. Both impact Black people at disproportionate rates, and neither is likely to be resolved without confronting and dismantling of systemic racism.

The Homelessness System’s Response to Inequity and Police Violence

Racial minorities are more likely to have interactions with police, more likely to be hurt, killed, or imprisoned, and more likely to become homeless. We know that racism causes homelessness, and members of the homelessness sector can help. By working to decriminalize homelessness, advocating for peaceful responses to nonviolent offenses, promoting the use of trained response staff for crisis interventions, and developing creative, equitable approaches, the field can help make violence against homeless people a thing of the past.

Only through a systemwide commitment to facing racism head-on can an end to homelessness be achieved.

Investing in equity is a matter of life and death for many, and we cannot afford to wait much longer.