Violence Against Unhoused People Is All Too Common. Here's What to Do if You Witness It

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A photo of a sunny day in San Francisco, with a line of trees and a row of tents pitched underneath them, and SF City Hall in the background. A lone figure can be seen walking toward City Hall with their back to the camera.
Tents line Fulton Street near City Hall on April 5, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When a video of a gallery owner in San Francisco using a hose to spray water on an unhoused woman on the sidewalk went viral, Lisa "Tiny" Gray-Garcia was horrified, but not surprised.

Growing up without a permanent home in Los Angeles, Gray-Garcia has seen what violence against people who are unhoused looks like up close. So, she knows how rare it is for such acts of violence to be reported, and how even more unlikely it is for perpetrators to be held accountable.

"There are some people among us who are filled with hate and imbued with scarcity and violence as their own way to process racism, classism, ableism, you name it. But it’s constant," Gray-Garcia told KQED.

"We’re spit on, harassed. You’re subject to the violence of exposure when you’re outside."

The gallery owner, Shannon Collier Gwin, 71, was charged with misdemeanor battery and apologized for the attack that went viral in January.

But videos like the one of Gwin are only the tip of an often misunderstood iceberg, according to Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.

Violence against people who lack housing "is astronomically higher than we see in other populations," said Kushel.

A study Kushel co-authored in 2003 on unhoused adults found that nearly a third of women, one-quarter of men and roughly 40% of transgender people in the study had experienced sexual assault in the last year.

The issue extends far beyond San Francisco. Last fall, a man named Juan Miguel Vasquez Serrano was murdered while unhoused and living in East Oakland. His death was part of a string of killings that targeted at least four unhoused people. Also, in 2021, at least 85 people who were experiencing homelessness were murdered in Los Angeles. And last year, in New York, three unhoused people were stabbed while sleeping.

A spectrum of violence

Physical or sexual violence are only a few ways that violence might occur. Advocates for people experiencing homelessness also say violence can come from government agencies. When public works crews clear settlements of unhoused people from sidewalks and underpasses, it often results in the loss of personal medications, wheelchairs and other important items.

Then there's the police. A 2014 community survey looking at harassment and violence against lower-income and unhoused people in San Francisco's Mission District (PDF) found that nearly 58% of respondents said they had experienced harassment, with 35% reporting it came from police, and 18% saying it came from neighborhood residents and local business owners.

It also found that 41% of all participants reported they had experienced physical violence specifically near the 16th Street BART station, with 13% reporting they had been physically harmed by police and 15% reporting that physical violence was perpetrated by neighborhood residents.

But perhaps the most egregious form of violence comes from government neglect. More than 4,800 Californians who were unhoused died in 2021, according to a New York Times report. And data from California’s 58 counties shows that the 4,800 estimate is likely an undercount.

Violence also includes tragedies like when a woman who was experiencing homelessness died in an encampment fire under a freeway overpass on an extremely cold night in April 2022. Or last December, when four men experiencing homelessness in Santa Clara County died in a single night during a cold snap.

'I was afraid for my safety'

Having housing dramatically reduces the likelihood someone might experience violence, according to Kushel.

"We know from those studies that when people obtain housing, no matter what type of housing it is, that over the next six months they are at dramatically less risk of experiencing violence," Kushel said.

Escaping violence is not simple, said Delphine Brody, an organizer with the Tenant and Neighborhood Councils. People might choose to stay in dangerous situations to avoid living on the street. Others might want to avoid shelters if they experienced violence there before. Some are on the street to escape violence at home.

"I’ve had bouts of relying on couch surfing just to escape violence at home. It’s very precarious," Brody said. "I definitely faced violence that led me to homelessness."

Part of that was because she felt police failed to keep her safe when she did call for help. In one instance, her partner nearly choked her to death. Brody called 911, but her partner fled before they arrived.

"When the police came, I was alone, and they seemed like they shrugged and said they could do nothing," said Brody, who identifies as a queer trans woman. "I was afraid for my safety for years after that, and I knew I couldn’t rely on the police."

Tips for responding if you witness violence against unhoused folks

It can be difficult to know how to help someone you know, or don’t, who is experiencing violence and homelessness. Here are some suggestions and resources from our sources:

Distract or redirect

One common tactic to intervene in any kind of street harassment is to start a conversation with the person who is being harassed to try to diffuse the situation.

"We all make these judgments all the time. I would make an effort to somehow intervene, even if it's distracting someone, calling attention to it, getting the crowd over there," Kushel said. "Sometimes, just the fact that someone realizes they are being watched can make a difference. I wonder what would have happened to the gallery owner if a passerby had said, 'That’s unacceptable. What are you doing? Stop that.'"

The nonprofit Right to Be offers free training in how to safely support and intervene in a variety of harassment situations.

Take a video if you can, but be cautious

Be aware that images of unhoused people experiencing violence can be traumatizing and dehumanizing. Take caution when sharing or reporting such documentation.

"Film that violence if you see it. But let’s not be so confused. When you see violent architecture — basically, spikes so poor people can’t sit down, and concrete barricades on sidewalks — call the city and tell them to stop being violent. Take pictures of that, too," said Gray-Garcia.

"At the end of the day, don’t be 'shocked,'" Gray-Garcia added. "Become aware of what’s already around you."

If the police are involved in an incident you're recording, it's important to know you have certain rights when gathering video of police. Read our guide to safely — and responsibly — recording the police.

Check in with people you know — at a safe time — who may be experiencing violence 

Share resources, including options that don’t involve the police if someone does not feel safe involving law enforcement.

"There are reasons people don’t feel safe, and very often it’s not that simple," said Brody. "Empowering them with the broadest options and checking in at an appropriate time is extremely important."

Some alternative support lines include:

Trans Lifeline: (877) 565-8860

  • Trans Lifeline is a free phone hotline that offers counseling and support to trans individuals who are in crisis. It's run by trans people, and the organization says its services are completely anonymous and confidential, meaning they will not call emergency services or law enforcement unless that is requested.

Call BlackLine: (800) 604-5841

  • Call BlackLine is a free crisis hotline focused on supporting Black, Indigenous and other people of color. The organization aims to provide an alternative avenue for people to report inappropriate or violent contact with police and vigilantes. All calls are confidential and anonymous.

San Francisco Women Against Rape (SFWAR): (415) 647-7273 (RAPE)

  • SFWAR offers free, 24-hour crisis counseling to anyone, including male and nonbinary survivors, who are experiencing sexual harassment and assault and domestic violence.

Mental Health First: (510) 999-9641 (9MH1) (Oakland) and (916) 670-4062 (Sacramento)

  • A project of the Anti Police-Terror Project in Oakland, MH First responds to emergencies ranging from domestic violence safety planning, to psychiatric emergencies and substance use support.