Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Violence isn’t news to those who live in the streets, said Anita Córdova, director of development and planning for Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless.
What is unusual is that the “level of violence” directed at the homeless recently has focused public attention on their plight.
Just this past weekend three teenagers were arrested in connection with the killing of two homeless men who were sleeping in an empty field near 60th Street and Central Avenue. The victims’ heads were smashed with cinder blocks. Their identities have not yet been released.
In June, a homeless woman, Nancy Myers, was killed while sleeping on the sidewalk across the street from the Albuquerque Rescue Mission. Police believe a pickup truck purposely veered onto the sidewalk. The driver has not been identified.
“Living on the streets makes them extremely vulnerable to danger,” Córdova said.
Mayor Richard Berry said the killings show “there’s a lot of work left to be done” to help people on the streets. “It’s one of the saddest things I’ve seen since I’ve been the mayor,” Berry told the Journal of the weekend attack.
The mayor, top police executives and social-service providers met Monday to discuss ways to better connect the homeless with available services. The meeting had been scheduled before the gruesome weekend murders took place.
Physical violence and trauma are seen to some extent daily at Healthcare for the Homeless. “People may come in with a black eye, fat lip, a broken or severely strained limb, or a swollen knee from being knocked to the ground or kicked,” but they often do not report their injuries as being the result of violence until questioned by the health care providers, Córdova said.
Neither do the homeless generally report the violence to the police, in part because they’re not comfortable around police officers or because they worry that police officers won’t believe their version of events.
However, the biggest reason for not reporting violence is that “in their minds they have more important concerns, such as where they will get their next meal,” she said.
Linda Fuller, director of St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, a day shelter, said violence among the homeless “has been happening for the 18 years that I’ve been here, but the public doesn’t hear about it until somebody dies.”
A lot of the violence occurs to homeless people while they’re sleeping, “so even if they wanted to, they couldn’t recognize or identify anyone,” Fuller said.
On a street corner just down the block from Health Care for the Homeless, Cecil Riggs, 52, was pushing a shopping cart containing his girlfriend. Both are homeless and sleep on the streets. Riggs said he heard about the weekend murders and was disturbed by it but not surprised, though it does make him “worry about what’s going to happen to you while you sleep.”
Riggs said he constantly hears from other homeless people about “how they got hit or were beat up or were robbed and they’re scared to be out here.”
About two months ago Riggs was himself attacked by two young men, one of whom kicked him in the head, grabbed his cellphone and took off running. Riggs got it back after tackling the man, but the head trauma left him with intermittent headaches.
Lonnie Kay, 42, was standing in the lunch line at the First United Methodist Church. She had read the latest news accounts of the murders and was angry and confused. “So these kids are upset because one of them broke up with his girlfriend? That’s their excuse for killing two people? Where is the compassion?”
One night several months ago she was sitting near the intersection of San Mateo and Central talking to a homeless man when violence intruded on her life. “Some guy walked up to us and started stabbing this other guy with a screwdriver. There was blood everywhere. I helped the injured man across the street to a Circle K and called police. The two guys didn’t know each other so it was kind of random, which makes it even more scary.”
A man who lives near the field where the murders took place this weekend said he knew the two victims, often drank with them and spoke to them as recently as Thursday. The victims, he said, were Native Americans from the Gallup area, though he did not identify them by name.
Sitting at a table outside St. Martin’s, Franklin, 56, draws deeply from a cigarette as he contemplates the reported deaths of the two men over the weekend.
“You ever kill anybody?” he asks rhetorically. “Me neither, but I can’t imagine it would be easy. How these kids could do this so easily is mind-boggling. I don’t even know what to think. It just makes me numb.”
Over at Coronado Park, just south of Interstate 40 and Third Street, a group of homeless people were also talking about the murders. Andrew Gonzales, 59, homeless since 1996, says he worries about his safety while sleeping outside but has recently taken to finding a spot in a nearby cemetery beside the gravestone of someone with the surname Gonzales.
“My friends tell me it’s creepy and ask if I’m afraid to be sleeping there with all those dead people,” he says. “I tell them it’s not the dead ones you have to worry about.”
Journal staffers Dan McKay and Pat Vasquez-Cunningham contributed to this story.