Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
More than a dozen of this year’s 72 murder victims in Albuquerque were reportedly homeless when they were killed – living on the streets, in motels or in other unstable situations around the city.
Sgt. Elizabeth Thomson with the Albuquerque Police Department, said the total of 14 makes up a slightly higher percentage than in 2016, when 11 of the 61 murder victims were homeless.
However, she said, detectives are investigating whether one person, or a group of people, killed three of the 2017 victims, men who were found stabbed to death and in similar positions earlier this year.
She said the other 11 homicides don’t appear to be related.
“We always have a number of people who were homeless who are included in our number of people who were murdered,” Thomson said. “They are definitely victimized at a higher rate than the general population.”
‘Rough out there’
Research by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council backs this up.
A 2014 survey of homeless populations in five major cities found that 49 percent of respondents nationwide said they had been the victim of an attack. Of those victims 30 percent reported being attacked within the past month and 73 percent reported being attacked within the past year.
Jennifer Metzler, the executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, said those who visit her organization often say the same thing.
“We always hear ‘it’s rough out there,’ ” Metzler said. “It’s really difficult. There’s also exposure, economic violence, environmental exposure and then always having to be vigilant.”
One of the homicides this year was a fatal stabbing at a bus stop on Central. In two separate cases someone reportedly ran over a homeless man who was believed to be stealing. And in late October, a man who was picking up donated belongings at a former mayoral candidate’s office was shot and killed in an apparently random attack.
In June, a 50-year-old man was sleeping under the Interstate 40 overpass on 12th street when he was set on fire. He was engulfed in flames and taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where he died. No arrests have been made in that case.
Others were found stabbed or shot to death in parking lots, ditches and abandoned houses around town.
Arrests have been made in six cases involving homeless victims this year, but eight other deaths, including three which may be related, have not been solved.
Sgt. Thomson has said police are investigating whether Eric Manning, Lonnie Whittle and Eric Hicks were killed by one person, or a group of people, over a period of four months this year. They were stabbed to death between May and September and their bodies were left out in the open in similar positions.
Danny Whatley, the executive director of the Rock at NoonDay, said on Thursday that remembering the people who died violently is especially important to him. He said he still gets mail for some of the murder victims, including Whittle, and has held onto papers belonging to Kee Thompson, who was killed by three teenagers in 2014.
“It’s before their time,” Whatley said. “There’s no reason for it. There’s no action except being homeless that they took that resulted in their death. The question always is why.”
Metzler said much of the violence against homeless people comes simply from living in a public space and not having anywhere to let down their guard.
“I go home at night and I lock my doors,” she said. “Just not having four walls and a roof, by definition, increases risk.”
On Thursday, the first day of winter, almost 100 people gathered at Health Care for the Homeless north of Downtown to march in remembrance of those who were living on the streets or who had been recently housed when they died.
The mourners – families of the deceased, service providers and activists – held signs with the names of the dead as they walked silently on the uneven pavement and sidewalks along 2nd Street past warehouses and city parks to the Rock at NoonDay ministry.
After the procession the group filled a large meeting room where they were served food and remembered each of those who had recently died in a candle ceremony.
Whatley said by their anecdotal count, around 68 people who were homeless, or recently housed, died over the past year. This includes those who died of natural causes or of overdoses as well as those who were killed.
A survey conducted over a single night last January by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness counted 1,318 people who reported they were experiencing homelessness. Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless estimates that at least 16,000 persons will experience homelessness during the year.
And the group serves about 7,000 people annually, Metzler said, by offering medical, dental and social services as well as a place to take a shower or get some coffee.
Metzler said that it’s become a familiar ritual for service providers to check in with each other throughout the year whenever a body is found dead in a park or in other tell-tale public spaces.
“Is that someone we knew?” Metzler said. “These are people and (we have) personal relationships with people we see regularly.”