The Disturbed Among Us

Recently I was walking home from work when I was approached by a street person. We have some “regulars” in our part of downtown, and over time you get to know them, but this person was unfamiliar. I immediately noticed that she had that kind of distracted, fidgety appearance that suggested that she was disturbed, or drugged up, or perhaps both. In any case, I kept my distance, and listened as she said she was a TikTok celebrity and asked for money to make a new video. (At least, I think that’s what she said.) When I demurred, she started fumbling in her pockets and dropped an unopened soda can, which started spraying all over. At that point the light changed, and I crossed the street and was on my way.

It was one random encounter on one early evening, and nothing came of it, but it got me to thinking all the same. If you live or work in a downtown area in America, you’ve no doubt had similar experiences. We’ve lived with street people in our midst since the U.S. adopted a deinstitutionalization policy decades ago, but lately it seems that a new layer of concern has been added to the interaction between the housed and the homeless. What used to be predictable panhandling has become more uncertain, and many of us have heard or read of encounters that have turned violent. The son of a coworker, for example, was attacked and stabbed with a screwdriver by a deranged street person in Denver. I’m not familiar with any such incidents in Columbus, where the homeless population seems to be smaller than in many other cities, but you don’t need to hear many such stories to be on your guard.

It’s difficult to get precise data about crime committed by the homeless, although there seems to be a consensus that it is underreported, because many such crimes are committed against other homeless people who don’t want to involve the authorities. Data from Los Angeles indicates that the substantial homeless population in that city accounts for about eight percent of the total amount of crime in that city, but 60 percent of that crime is classified as violent crime. Also concerning is the fact that many of the homeless among us are people who formerly were incarcerated; according to a recent study, people released from prison are 10 times more likely to become homeless than the general population. Drug use among the homeless population just adds to the volatility.

The issue of homelessness obviously is a complicated one, but the failure to address it has produced a culture in urban America where a street person seeking money might become suddenly aggressive, and a random encounter with a total stranger might become violent. That’s obviously not good for our cities, for people who live and work in them, or for the homeless people themselves.